Natural Connections Lead to Real Curiosity

Any teacher can attest to the fact that students have a lot to say about their education, and I have heard repeatedly from my high school students, that much of their frustration lies in being cooped up indoors listening to people like me talk.  While I do recognize the importance of talking, especially when teaching an English class, I am sure at times I over-do it.   I talk too much.  Perhaps in my zeal, I encroach too much on their own literary experiences. 

You get me going on an idea though, and boy can I talk.  I get it.  I know as a kid, when I was in school, I usually found myself wishing I was outside in the fresh air, going fishing, bike riding with friends, or just trouncing through the woods.  I empathize with my students.  School robs us of much of that critical alone time in nature that we need to forge our identities.  

That said, my school has made concerted efforts over the years to get young people outside.  We go up to Colonial Creek Campground every spring for a school hike, and in the past, we have taken our students on overnight excursions.   

In fact, several years ago we took some students up to Baker Lake for a weekend field trip courtesy of a local environmental nonprofit.  It sounded like a very promising weekend with lots of outdoor time for our kids.  One of the caveats for free lodging and food was that our students (many of whom already lived in rural settings in Skagit Valley) would go on a guided hike with the leaders of this organization.  This seemed like a great idea, but before our first day was over, we (meaning the teachers from my school plus an administrator) were informed that several of our students had been seen walking in the woods without permission.    We talked with them and reminded them that we were guests and needed to be respectful of our hosts' wishes.      

The next day was our hike and students were excited about this.  They had listened patiently to a couple hours of slideshows and lectures about flora and fauna, and they were ready to break out.   I will never forget the enthusiasm as we stepped out of the vans onto the East Bank trail.  Some kids already knew of the massive trees, and glorious scenery that awaited them.   After a morning spent indoors, they were ready to break out.      

Starting down the trail, the mood was upbeat. Then, every couple of minutes our hosts stopped the hike to point out cool forest features.  It was well-intended, but the mood quickly soured, nonetheless. A student complained that he just wanted to hike and move his body and was reprimanded for being disrespectful and loud.  It quickly spiraled from there as a power struggle and a rebellion ensued.  

Shortly after, we returned to the vans, flustered, and discouraged.  We were later informed that we would not be invited back but I already knew it was not a good match.   As well-meaning as they were, these teachers were not recognizing the needs of their audience.   I believe the best way to inspire the love of the outdoors and curiosity is to just let kids "be" in nature.  That was and is my approach as a father, and it seems to work well in terms of inspiring long-term passion for the outdoors as well as for developing lasting environmental ethics.   

Unfortunately, in their zeal to prepare our students to fully experience nature, our hosts that weekend over-did it and missed a terrific opportunity to instill a deeper connection to the natural world by letting kids be free to experience nature on their own terms.