Thursday 19 April 2018

Taught by Nature: The Importance of Outdoor Education

“Lead your child into nature, teach him on the hilltop and in the valleys. There he will listen better, and the sense of freedom will give him more strength to overcome difficulties. But in these hours of freedom, let him be taught by nature rather than by you. Let him fully realize that she is the real teacher and that you, with your art, do nothing more than walk quietly at her side. Should a bird sing or an insect hum on a leaf, at once stop your walk. Bird and insect are teaching him; you may be silent.” Johann Pestalozzi (1746-1827) 

As a child, Melanie Elliott spent a month every summer at Long Point Provincial Park in Ontario. “All there was to do was catch tadpoles, turtles, and snakes,” she says. “I remember saying to my Mum, ‘This clam followed me home – can I keep it?’”

Children nowadays have far less opportunity to roam outdoors, collecting insects, rodents, or snakes. There’s more fear and less time. Melanie, a long-time outdoor educator who has only recently retired from the University of Saskatchewan and a founding member of the Wildlife Rehabilitation Society of Saskatchewan, is passionate about reversing that trend: “Kids need to know nature is safe,” she says. “So many kids are scared of bees and wasps. I like to give them a chance to hold a beetle or a caterpillar. Salamanders and snakes aren’t pretty or cute, but they have their own charm if you take the time to observe.”

And time is just what Melanie provided when she took Grade 2 classes to spend a day at Saskatoon Natural Grasslands. She’d have the kids lie down in the grass and “bond to the prairies.” Using all five senses, they could see the wind pulling the grass, listen for birds and insects, feel the sun and know when a cloud passed over it.

Melanie coordinated Ecology Camps for Kids, offered by the University of Saskatchewan (U of S) during summer holidays and Easter breaks, for many years. Bird banding was a favorite activity as the participants could actually hold a baby bird. Other kids held out for the wetland camp. They’d visit a different wetland every day, walking barefoot and feeling the mud squish between their toes. The dinosaur camp went to Herschel where the students would dig in the sand for bones.

Instructors were encouraged to get involved and to look for the teachable moments. “Kids can understand complex concepts if they can see it and feel it,” Melanie says. “If you’re standing on a hill in Saskatoon Natural Grasslands and you see buildings all around you, you understand that the area is an island.”

Ecology Camps for Kids were the only U of S camps that took kids off campus. The University was concerned about safety, but Melanie knew how important it was for kids to be outside. Every day they would go somewhere different – Wanuskewin, Beaver Creek, Pike Lake.

A quote from Helen Keller underpins Melanie’s beliefs:

"Security is mostly superstition. It does not exist in nature, nor do the children of men as a whole experience it. Avoiding danger is no safer in the long run than outright exposure. Life is either a daring adventure or nothing." 

And, in closing, another one of the quotes that Melanie has collected over the years:

“If you keep this wide-open feeling of always being on the brink of new discoveries, then you will be on the way to becoming a real naturalist, for no one can claim to be a naturalist who does not continually have a seeking, exploring, and thrilling mind.” Vinson Brown, Investigating Nature through Outdoor Projects 

See Also
Outdoor Activities for Children and Youth 
Outdoor Learning: “The Absolute Best” 
Education for Sustainability: A Conversation with Janet McVittie