Quaker Education is Outdoor Education

Friends schools have an exceptional opportunity to be leaders in outdoor education.  
The moral underpinnings of Quakerism demand that we educate our students to be stewards 
of the natural world.  The powerful history of social change is a model for taking effective action. 
No matter the school's location-- urban, suburban or rural--all campuses lend themselves to 
getting students outdoors.

 by Dan Kriesberg, Sixth Grade Teacher, Friends Academy

In my view, there is no better phrasing than to say, we need a "right relationship" with the earth. For this to happen, outdoor environmental education must be part of Quaker education.  The point of outdoor environmental education is to help children to gain a greater sense of place, by giving them experiences that enhance their ability to wonder, to learn, and to become effective stewards of the natural world.  This only happens with the direct contact that comes from being outdoors.  Outdoor education happens outdoors.  Catching a frog will always teach more about that frog than any lecture, movie, website, book or video ever could. In the past, children spent more time outdoors, but, more recently, overscheduling, fear, and a lack of places to go have conspired to keep them indoors.

The Quaker testimonies mesh with outdoor education in many ways, even if the word Quakerism is never mentioned.  Living simply is more than having and using less stuff; it also means finding joy and wonder in simple pleasures.  By becoming more aware of the amazing world that surrounds them, children can find joy in a place that is not human-centered.  Time spent outdoors makes them more attentive and better able to appreciate their surroundings. Further, outdoor environmental education is a force that helps children enhance their sense of wonder.  When actively wondering, children will ask the questions that lead to a more profound understanding of the natural world, and after raising their awareness to wonder, children will discover more at which to be amazed, to marvel, to enjoy--all of which come from being in tune with that which surrounds them. Spending time in the outdoors, learning about the outdoors, and exploring the outdoors are the only ways that this can effectively happen.  This incredible source of joy surrounds all of us; it is just that simple.  Visits to national parks are wonderful, but not required, as the natural world can be observed and explored in backyards, streets, empty lots, forests, or green spaces. All that is necessary is getting children outdoors.

The power of silence can be felt outdoors as much as it can in any Meetinghouse.  Taking children outside for silent reflection allows opportunities for the more-than-human world to reveal itself as they become inhabitants as opposed to visitors.  There are also many lessons and activities that can take place within the environment, that enhance the sense of wonder, simply by being outdoors.

We are at war with creation.  Estimates put the number of endangered species in the United States at 1,300, and the number lost to human action is estimated to be at a minimum of one thousand times more than the average background rate of extinction.  The list of environmental degradation is a long one, but it does not have to be this way.  Peaceful resolution of conflict is not limited to working things out between people; it means finding peace with all creation.  There are many examples of individuals who have made good choices to solve environmental problems. These are opportunities to teach children about the successes we have had resolving conflicts with creation.  There are stories in every community of rivers that are cleaned, endangered species saved, and land preserved.  To inspire, more of these stories need to be told.  It is worth reading the local paper for examples and talking to nearby environmental organizations to find out what they are doing and how to get children involved.  Schools need to get children out of the classroom for visits to places of success to bring these stories to life.  Schools need to take action to be more sustainable and to celebrate those initiatives and the results thereof. There are ways to live peacefully with creation by understanding creation. 

We also need to be honest about our impact on nature and have the integrity to do something about it. We must speak the truth about our power to damage the environment and come up with ways to save it.  By ignoring the reality, we are all harmed.  Truth can be revealed through science, which is why it is so important to teach children how science works. One of the fundamental elements of science is that there is a process.  We can all equally add to the collective knowledge of science. In the outdoors, students can learn observation skills to make models, to classify information, to design experiments, and to draw conclusions, amongst other invaluable skills.

The truth-seeking of science and Quakerism have much in common.  Both empower children by showing them that they can learn for themselves and are not dependent on experts or clergy.  Both demonstrate that a learner must be open to new knowledge and can always learn new things.  Both teach the importance of inquiry and encourage the asking of questions.  Both are a search for truth and understanding through contemplation, observation, experimentation, and experience.  Both use gathered evidence to understand phenomena.  Both believe that finding knowledge is best done in cooperation by sharing insights with others.  With expertise gained, all must act with integrity to make good choices to care for the land, air, and water.

In the process of being honest about our impact, we must be mindful of being age appropriate. Too much focus on environmental problems for younger children can lead to fear and disconnect that will scare them in a way that will not motivate them toward action or allow them to find joy and wonder in the natural world.  When in doubt, always err on the side of beauty and wonder. 

The scientific definition of community is the interrelationship between all of the living parts in a given area. But, when we use community to describe our schools and neighborhoods, do we include the animals and plants that share our earth?  It is time to include all life in our common definition of community. Everything is connected, and through outdoor environmental education, children will see these interrelationships firsthand.  Taking children outdoors to learn about the members of their community provides opportunities to know about them, and the more connected they are to them, the more likely they will be to care for them. Understanding ecological interrelationships provides an explanation for what, why and how the earth works and where we fit in.  This is why it is essential to know the names of common plants and animals in our communities. We need to celebrate the local flora and fauna; amazing flora and fauna are not limited to jungles and deserts, or other faraway places. With the outdoors as your classroom, you can help children appreciate the ecological interrelationships that allow life on earth to exist and to understand their place in this incredible creation.

It is essential to come in contact with plants and animals in the wild whenever possible.  Allowing students to dig into the soil to find all those creepy, crawly creatures is an opportunity to engage students with life. Even if a child doesn't want to hold a worm, after learning about them in their real-world environment, they may think twice before stepping on one.  Sitting still and watching a bird sing helps to see that bird as an individual with its own life to live.  No matter what, humans are going to have an impact, but the choice we do have is to limit our impact by continually reminding ourselves that all lives have value.  As a bonus, outdoor education is best taught in cooperative groups; activities like digging for worms or listening to birds, become moments where children engage with one another when all have equal space to contribute and to learn.  

The result of outdoor environmental education done right is children who will have the motivation, knowledge, and skills to be effective stewards, stewardship that goes beyond just using reusable water bottles and shopping bags.  To be faithful stewards and take action as Quakers have in the past, it takes personal responsibility in conjunction with holding our government and business leaders accountable for their actions.  This is the way to more success stories.

Friends schools have an exceptional opportunity to be leaders in outdoor education.  The moral underpinnings of Quakerism demand that we educate our students to be stewards of the natural world.  The powerful history of social change is a model for taking effective action. No matter the school's location-- urban, suburban or rural--all campuses lend themselves to getting students outdoors.  Our schools also have the gift of more flexible curricula.  Time for outdoor environmental education should not be pushed out by curricular pressures, as it can be integrated into many aspects of school life because outdoor education is part of every discipline. 

By basing outdoor environmental education in the awareness of wonder and beauty, children will gain a greater sense of place. As they learn more about the ecological systems and how to take action, they gain the knowledge and skills to make a difference. With stories of successes, children are given hope and motivation that problems can be solved. Outdoor environmental education makes the testimonies real. It is a way to walk the talk.


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