It’s a Tuesday morning in September, a handful of days before the autumn equinox, “back to school” season. Fourth grader Luisa is exploring “the Pines,” a rocky wonderland along East Camino Cielo, the sky road. The area is made up of exposed rocks and pine trees for climbing and threaded with bushy pathways for exploring. Luisa stops me: “Do you hear that?” I think I do. I hear a wrentit calling in the middle distance. “It’s a cricket,” she asserts. About to correct her, I pause and listen just a little deeper. I hear the cricket.
As we pause, the soundscape expands: We can hear the breeze in the trees to the north and the clamorous joy of the rest of the class exploring behind us. I stay silent, while Luisa explains that she herself is a naturalist. In particular, she says, she’s interested in moss. She points to the sandstone outcropping to our right. Soon, we’re both crouched down, peering closely at the lichens colonizing the rock, and there’s a breath of moss in just the right spot to harness our curiosity.
As we stand again, Luisa asks me, “Do you think the other kids want to be friends to nature?” The thing is, Luisa is not, at least in my experience, your average fourth grader. In fact, I’d hold her up as a counter-example. This is the second year that Wilderness Youth Project has offered this Bridge to Nature program to 300-ish Santa Barbara fourth graders, and most don’t show up curious about moss. As we rotate through classes, meeting our cohort for the whole school year, it’s a time of firsts. The first time the kids get to climb on a rock, see a squirrel eating the nuts out of a pinecone, muddily investigate the water levels in the Santa Ynez river firsthand (or, rather, first foot).
Emerson’s poetic reflection “the first in time and the first in importance on the influences upon the mind is that of nature” perhaps summarized the relationship between the natural world and childhood and learning a mere 200 years ago. This article might change in tone if I ventured to reflect on what today’s kids experience as “first influences on the mind,” so let’s get back to the fourth graders. Transported from the classroom to nearby wild places, the kids are transported by joy, awe, wonder, Emersonian kinds of feelings. One boy, perhaps not yet a self-identified naturalist, turned to me after just a couple of hours in a county park: “I think I’m getting used to nature.”
In a school district where we are challenged to overcome significant achievement (and enrichment) gaps, the outdoors might be one really good place to help level the playing field. Educational strategies are ever-refining, working to respond to the times while balancing funding and trends in testing. Evidence has piled up in recent decades, perhaps best summarized by Yale Social Ecologist Stephen Kellert: “Children’s direct and regular experience of the natural world is an irreplaceable dimension of healthy maturation and development.” But we’re not offering anywhere near regular doses of this essential developmental ingredient today: Children spend more than 90 percent of their time indoors.
That’s why it makes good sense to spend time outside as an educational strategy. So, is it science? Physical education? Social studies? Language arts? I’m going with “all of the above.” As the Next Generation Science Standards were developed in recent years, real-life experiences of natural process lined up with curriculum. In 2015, California even adopted a Blueprint for Environmental Literacy and voted to include environmental principles in the framework for the history-social science curriculum.
Way back in 2005, a study by the California Department of Education found that at-risk children who participated in outdoor education programs raised their science test scores by 27 percent, improved their conflict-resolution and problem-solving skills, and experienced better self-esteem and motivation to learn. That sums up the benefits of time outdoors pretty well.
Tempting as it is to think time in nature is just for science, we’re hearing back from classroom teachers a lot about what one teacher dubbed “the experience bank.” To write, a student must have something to write about. If prompted to write about summer vacation, and vacation consists mostly of time indoors, there just might not be much to write about. But after a few adventurous hours outside with Wilderness Youth Program (WYP) each month, students have more deposits in their experience bank and more to say and write, which translates to more success in English language arts.
One teacher observed about students’ experience with the the Bridge to Nature program: “When I announce that tomorrow is a WYP day, the kids burst out in cheers. At the end of each month, my students complete a ‘Monthly Reflection’ in writing and color sketch. Last month, the overwhelming number of students cited WYP as their favorite activity. They were very detailed in their keen appreciation for learning outdoors, immersing themselves in nature, and making memories.” Another teacher added: “We study ‘Soils, Rocks and Landforms’ in fourth grade, so their monthly hands-on WYP adventures lend perfectly to science (they bring back a vial of soil from each excursion). The experiences also lead naturally into some great writing samples where they have firsthand, vivid content to add to their narratives. “
As Santa Barbarans, we need to keep the hope of leveling the playing field for our next generation at the top of our collective to-do list. There’s no panacea to make our schools work. The idea that spending time outdoors makes us smarter, healthier, and happier, isn’t a new idea, but perhaps it’s a good one to remember. Let’s celebrate the role that nature has to play in educating our children. When back-to-school includes a bit of go-outside-and-play, that’s good news.
Wilderness Youth Project partners with Santa Barbara Unified School District Title I schools to offer Bridge to Nature, a monthly outdoor education and nature connection program. Support the campaign to raise $250,000 in 45 days to make this program possible: wyp.org/bridge-to-nature/.