Outdoor education: Why it matters

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By The Staff

In this time of financial downturn, our educational system threatens to become stripped of anything but the very basics — reading, writing and arithmetic. The perception is that everything must be taught right at the desk.   But I’d like to challenge that idea.  

After the 2000 Cerro Grande Fire, John Hogan, Laura Patterson, Gerry Washburn and Craig Martin developed what is known as the Volunteer Task Force.  The Task Force worked with community members, schools and other communities to understand the fire and fire ecology.  Working with teachers, the Task Force incorporated curriculum needs and state standards such as measuring, data recording and graphing. The data recording turned into data development—after planting trees in the burned areas, they could measure how many survived and how tall they grew each year.  As the years passed, they were able to make a connection with past classes who had nurtured the trees in earlier years. In addition, they incorporated writing:  journals, essays, poetry and reflections. The Mountain Elementary School students who worked to restore the Quemazon Nature Trail have worked on a new nature trail guide and even wrote a song about it.  A poem called “Quemazon” by Gwen captures the experience:   “The trail was burned black / For four years we fixed it up / The beauty is back.”

John Hogan said of his experience, “I discovered there is little in education you cannot also teach in the out-of-doors.  Outdoor education is immensely powerful.”

Cameron Ott, who was a student at Mountain Elementary School in 2000-2001, said in the book “Touched by Fire,” “It (working on the Quemazon Trail) was the first educational experience that combined my personal life, my academic life and the life of the community.  (Why isn’t education like this everywhere?)

 In many ways it was the first academic opportunity that I threw myself into wholeheartedly inside of the classroom, at home, and in the community.  It was empowering for a sixth-grade student in building confidence and a sense of responsibility.”

Ott said that her outdoor experience at Mountain “provided early community service experience, fostered a connection to the land and to the community, introduced a sense of environmental responsibility, and gave my peers and me fresh air and exercise.”

As summer approaches, there are opportunities within the community to get children and youth involved in outdoor experiences.  Organizations like the PEEC Nature Center and the Family YMCA have programs to engage children in learning about their environment and teach a sense of responsibility.  

Each summer my granddaughter comes from Utah for several weeks.  For the past two summers she has been involved in PEEC’s Nature Odyssey for grades fourth through sixth in the Valles Caldera National Preserve.  This year she was terribly disappointed because she is now going into junior high.  She said, “I wish I could go back.  I would tell anyone that it is an experience you will never forget. There are new things to look forward to and the Valle Grande is beautiful.  If you are lucky you might find elk bones or even see a real herd.”  Nature Odyssey stimulated her interest so much she decided to do a science fair project that won a State of Utah award.

As we look at our educational system, let us not forget that music, art, physical education and outdoor experiences are not just amusing things to do but can engage learning and help develop life-long passions and skills.  

Terry Foxx is a Board member of PEEC (Pajarito Environmental Education Center) and chaired the Earth Day celebration this year.  For information about PEEC’s summer programs to get kids and families outdoors, visit www.PajaritoEEC.org.