Can outdoor learning create the next generation of eco-warriors?

·9 min read

Pandemic lockdowns will be remembered for the amount of time they forced us to stay indoors. For many teachers trying to keep young minds alert and educated over the last two years, they decided to do the opposite. When public health measures were put in place to slow the spread of COVID-19, it left two options for educators: more screen time or outdoor learning. Many took the opportunity to take their lessons outside the classroom, allowing students to learn in nature.

As pandemic measures are lifted, and more and more students are returning to the classroom, some organizations are hoping certain elements of the outdoor education relied on during the pandemic will become a permanent fixture

Earlier this year, the Toronto and Region Conservation Authority (TRCA) released Minimum Access Standards that recommend to school boards a minimum amount of outdoor education students should receive on topics related to nature and the environment—given in the great outdoors.

“One of the principles of TRCA’s learning is that you can't do this in the classroom,” said Darryl Gray, Director of Education and Training at the TRCA. “There's a real benefit to teaching about natural science conservation, the environment within the natural environment itself.”

The new Minimum Access Standards were one of five recommendations from an Outdoor Education Task Force that was composed of school board trustees and TRCA board members.

The recommendations include day excursions for Grade 2 students to learn about growth and changes in animals, as well as air and water in the environment. Grade 4s are recommended to complete a day excursion to learn about wildlife habitat, and Grade 7s should have an overnight trip to learn about the thousands of interactions that take place between animals, plants, insects and other organisms in the environment.

At the highschool level, the TRCA is recommending a day excursion for Grade 9s to learn about sustainable ecosystems.

There are many physical and mental benefits to outdoor education such as increased movement, reduced stress levels and longer attention spans. Studies have shown that adults are more likely to incorporate time outside into their daily routine if they had extended periods of time outside as a child.

In 2021, at the height of the pandemic, a study published in the Journal of Affective Disorders Reports found that the average child spent six hours on the screen each day watching television, playing games or on social media. Some children spent as much as 13 hours on the screen per day.

An increasing lack of time spent outside by younger generations has led to the creation of the term “nature deficit disorder”. While nature deficit disorder is not an official diagnosis in the International Classification of Diseases and Related Health Problems, it is of increasing concern to pediatricians and parents alike.

Direct experiences with nature are being replaced with indirect experiences through a screen.

“In short, children are in some ways on house arrest and in danger of losing their capacity to think or learn about the world directly,” reads a study published in the Journal for Specialists in Pediatric Nursing in 2009.

“I think for the public, it's really important, especially for kids, to have some time away from their devices to enjoy the outdoors and to explore—be curious about the world,” said Dave Taylor, a wildlife photographer and retired teacher. “And I think that curiosity is something that really adds to the experience, whether it's watching a butterfly or seeing a deer for the first time.”

Traditional education caters to kids who learn best by reading and listening. However, not all students are able to best understand material in this way.

“Some kids are book learners, some kids are visual learners, some kids learn by touching and some kids really come alive in the outdoors,” Taylor said.

Outdoor learning provides an opportunity for students to absorb information by experiencing the world around them.

With the reality of climate change, students are constantly surrounded by information regarding floods, droughts, forest fires and other extreme weather events in the news. Sometimes this abundance of negative information can overload a child’s brain causing what has become known as climate anxiety.

Climate anxiety, also called eco anxiety, is distress related to the effects of climate change. It is described by the American Psychological Association as “a chronic fear of environmental doom”. Famous climate activist Greta Thunberg has talked openly about how her struggles with anxiety about climate change at a young age triggered her activism.

One of the best ways to tackle climate anxiety is by getting outdoors and doing things to help the planet.

“We've always said you can't fall in love with something you've never met,” said Janice Haines, a teacher at Belfountain Public School.

Research from Abacus Data shows that over 90 percent of young people support greater climate action. This support can stem from getting kids outside at a young age.

This is what organizations like Future Majority and Peel’s Community Climate Council are pushing for. Both organizations strive for climate action across the Region and will benefit from a young, engaged generation that cares about the environment.

Miranda Baksh, co-founder and CEO of Peel’s Community Climate Council, said she wants to see younger candidates running in the municipal election to bring forth climate policies. The kids who would be most likely to support these policies are those that have spent a lot of time outside.

It’s a story common to many of the world’s most renown environmentalists and activists. Rachel Carson, born in rural Pennsylvania, spent much of her childhood exploring the area around her family’s 65-acre farm. She would go on to write Silent Spring, one of the most influential environmental works of non-fiction that is widely credited with triggering the modern environmental movement. David Attenborough, one of the world’s most recognizable and powerful voices for the betterment of the planet, spent his childhood collecting fossils, stones and other pieces of nature. Then there’s Julia Butterfly Hill, the woman who spent 738 days in the canopy of a 1,000 year-old redwood tree to save it from being cut down and to protest against old-growth clear-cutting. She spent the first 10 years of her life living in a trailer with her family where she would explore the many rivers and streams around the campgrounds they visited.

Similar stories, same results. Being in nature at a young age can have remarkable effects.

In 2015, the Journal of Wildlife Management published a study which found birdwatchers and other outdoor enthusiasts were four to five times more likely than non-recreationists to engage in conservation behaviours, including donating to wildlife and other ecological causes, protecting habitat, advocating for wildlife and participating in local environmental groups.

Taylor agrees that getting kids outside is one of the best ways to understand the world around them and to carry that knowledge with them throughout their entire lives.

“I think the outdoors are very important for kids to embrace. I don't think you really value the environment, the world, unless you experience it and I think that's part of the problem,” he said. “I think a lot of people have experienced business success and commercial success without really realizing how important the outdoors is to that success.”

In the Ontario curriculum, there is currently no mandate for outdoor education. This leaves organizations like the TRCA to take charge.

“I think that any board of education or government— federally, provincially, municipally—just is missing the boat if they don't mandate that there is a role for outdoor education and field trips in general,” Taylor said.

Belfountain PS, located in the northwest region of Caledon, is a leader in outdoor education.

In 2005, a group of parents approached the school administration with one request: to take their kids outside more. The school had already been looking for ways to move forward in pedagogy and practice, and after bringing the idea to the superintendent, the Peel District School Board (PDSB) launched a pilot program where two teachers from Belfountain Public School would take their classes outside for learning on a weekly basis.

The following year the school began collaborating with Learning for a Sustainable Future (LSF)

LSF is a non-profit organization that is taking the lead on sustainability education in Canada. They have been working for over 30 years on integrating sustainability education into Canadian schools.

In 2019, Belfountain PS and LSF designated Belfountain as the first Sustainable Future School.

“As a Sustainable Future School, we have found our purpose,” said Lynn Bristol, principal of Belfountain PS in a report about sustainable schools across the globe. Sustainability is where our heart is.”

Some of the activities that have occurred at Belfountain include a food waste challenge; and the removal of invasive garlic mustard, followed by students replanting native flower species; and a wildlife centre where kindergarteners learned about ecopassages.

Haines said it is important to try not to force kids into doing things, but get them to understand the value of what they are doing themselves.

“Like I've already said to teachers, the hardest thing to do is recycling, because it's a job, like taking out the garbage, but if they see the value in it, hopefully, then that becomes something that they want to do, because they feel it's important,” she said.

Some of the learning that occurs takes part in the community. This involves other people in learning about the natural environment.

“It's got to be important to the community to do these things. And if it's important to the community, the government will come along,” Taylor said.

Belfountain is already ahead, but the TRCA will be implementing the new Minimum Access Standards in partnership with local school boards. Belfountain serves as a model for what more schools can do.

“We know now more than ever, how important those nature-based learning experiences are for the students of the GTA, particularly as it continues to urbanize,” said Gray with the TRCA. “So we're committed to making sure that those continue to happen.”

Email: rachel.morgan@thepointer.com

Twitter: @rachelnadia_

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Rachel Morgan, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter, The Pointer