Lens on Outdoor Learning

By Ginny Sullivan Gazette Contributing Writer

As an advocate of the kind of learning that happens naturally, outside, “without being taught,” I consult with schools, child care centers and other institutions to help them develop habitat in every nook and cranny of their outdoor environment.

Developing school grounds means that children need only go out the door to be offered any number of lessons in natural science, one of which is sure to be at just their level of interest. On any given day they might discover a puddle forming from rainwater, a bird building a nest, a pollinator visiting a flower, or an earthworm emerging from the ground.

As a parent, grandparent, teacher and designer, I know that healthy habitat for wildlife is a reliable indicator of healthy habitat for children. In rich outdoor environments, children’s curiosity comes alive, their language thrives and their anxieties tend to melt away. They are primed for learning.

Despite Richard Louv’s groundbreaking 2006 book, Last Child in the Woods, and myriad new studies on the educational and health benefits of going outside, the belief that valuable learning happens only inside, and largely with materials brought from somewhere else, continues to pervade our education system. Even time for recess is at risk as schools dedicate more and more time to mandated curriculum.

I’ve often heard teachers say, “We would love to take the children outside, but we can’t—because we have to meet the Early Learning Standards.” This assumption that indoors is a better place to learn needs to be challenged with real-world evidence of what children do and learn in rich outdoor environments. Careful observation and documentation of children’s outdoor experience supports the assertion that the building blocks for lifelong learning—curiosity, flexibility, imagination, reasoning and problem solving—arise naturally as children explore and express themselves outside. In other words, if early learning standards are applied to what children do and say outdoors, we see that play and learning are one and the same.

For example, the trails at the Hitchcock Center are full of mysteries to be solved in the wintertime, and the children who attend programs are encouraged by their teachers to get out and explore them. One day a group of seven 2-to-6-year olds prepared for a journey into the snowy landscape outside the glass window wall of the center. They were puzzling about how animals and birds keep warm out there, a question which engendered much empathy and concern as they donned their own puffy jackets and warm woolen hats to brave the cold.

Through the window they had watched a jaunty squirrel approaching the bird feeder, his bare toes looking particularly vulnerable in the six-inch-deep snow. A particularly serious 3-year-old pondered the question of how squirrels keep warm. With his own legs stretched out in front of him, observing his own toes, he ventured that perhaps squirrels wear socks. His speculation—incorrect but not illogical—indicated a good grasp of cause and effect, a dose of empathy, an ability to reflect and apply one situation to another, and considerable imagination. It illustrated that problem solving in the real world gives young children precious opportunities to explore, test and articulate questions and answers.


Walking on the trail, this same child pulled on a vine emerging from the snow and uncovered a pine cone. Scraping the snow aside, he discovered a whole collection of nutshells, twigs and seeds. Following his own curiosity, he discovered a squirrel cache, a fascinating window into the workings of the winter woods.

Investigating the food cellar of a gray squirrel held his attention for ten minutes or more, despite the cold and distractions of the other children. Such sustained and focused inquiry comes naturally when children are following their own intellectual curiosity with the support of interested and supportive adults.

As an antidote to what Louv calls “nature deficit disorder,” pediatricians recommend—and sometimes prescribe—experience in the natural world at all times of year. So by all means, get outside with your children. You’ll discover the magic and mystery of the natural world guilt-free, knowing that in addition to the fun, they will be getting a full dose of learning along the way.

Ginny Sullivan is a principal in Learning By The Yard, a design and consulting firm in Conway. She is co- author, with Wendy Banning, of Lens on Outdoor Learning.

Earth Matters, written by staff and associates of the Hitchcock Center for the Environment at 525 South Pleasant St., Amherst, appears every other week. For more information, call 413-256-6006, or write to us.

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