Should returning to school require eschewing the outdoors?
That’s not a trick question. The answer is no.
A growing body of research shows children learn better, have less behavioral problems, and perform better academically when they learn in and about nature.
The not-so-great news is that most children are not experiencing these benefits.
A UK study found that eight year-old children can identify nearly 80% of 150 fictional characters (think Pokémon) versus a max of 53% of local flora and fauna species. In another study (p22), conducted by the BBC, of 700 children between 9-11 years of age, only 8% could identify a goldfinch.
One major reason for this knowledge gap is that children spend 50% less time outside than children did two decades ago. Today, screen time accounts for 53 hours per week per child (ages 8-18). The Children and Nature Network reports that only 6% of children aged 9-13 play outside on their own each week.
And yet, doctors are testifying before Congress that “play is so important to optimal child development that it has been recognized by the United Nations High Commission for Human Rights as a right of every child.” Similarly, the American Academy of Pediatrics states that an hour of daily unstructured play is essential to children’s physical and mental health, and considerable research substantiates that recommendation.
Fortunately, a wide range of resources are available for caregivers and educators seeking to right the indoor/outdoor balance.
Books, lesson plans, equipment, websites and nature exploration apps abound.
At all ages, local, personally relevant, outdoor experiences are key. As David Sobel emphasizes, “We take children away from these strength-giving landscapes when we ask them to deal with distant ecosystems and environmental problems. Rather, we should be attempting to engage children more deeply in knowing the flora, fauna, and character of their own local places.”
Children are most interested in nature that is familiar and local. For example, learning about mallard ducks that can be observed on a local river or pond is more engaging than studying about penguins (which most children may never see).
So, how do we engage children in their local ecosystem?
Enabling children to explore outdoor spaces – yards, parks, and wild areas – can be as simple as accompanying them to these places. Beyond that, simplicity is still the golden standard.
- Encourage self-guided inquiry by inviting children to ask lots of questions.
- Follow up on subjects that pique their curiosity.
- Prioritize books and local experts as both involve interaction and active learning; use the internet as a last resort when seeking answers.
In all these cases, incorporating sketching into nature exploration and education is a dynamic way to draw children closer to nature.
Drawing is a universally engaging way of exploring nature. Even better, an extensive body of research indicates that incorporating drawing into learning experiences makes for better learning.
Drawing (even without training) can:
- aid learning & memorization
- help clarify what you know
- enhance research methodology
- improve value of student assessments
- enhance creativity and problem solving
Similarly, one of the most compelling aspects of outdoor experiences is that nature is relevant to nearly every academic and developmental subject.
A walk through the a local park, for example, could be integrated into lessons about science (ex: urban ecology, wild animals), local history, geography, and even math.
In each example, drawing and creative writing would be potent ways of engaging with both the place and the target academic subject.
The rest of this article details two sketching approaches – map-making and keeping a field journal – with tremendous potential to engage children in nature. Better yet, both are cheap or free and easy to facilitate.
Drawing and creating maps can be a powerful means of connecting a child with their surroundings.
Researcher David Sobel uses map-making activities to understand how children learn about the world around them. He has determined that there is great psychological and intellectual value inherent in figuring out how you fit into the world around you, and this is particularly true for children.
However, children actually conceptualize their surroundings differently at different ages. Tailoring a map-making activity according to a child’s age helps ensure they enjoy the benefits of the activity.
4-7 years old:
- “From ages four to seven, children’s homes fill the center of their maps, and much of their play is within sight or earshot of the home […]”
- Take away: encourage young children to explore the natural areas immediately surrounding their most familiar areas (homes/classrooms).
- Ideas: Map out where trees, flowers, birds, and squirrels are observed in or around a child’s home or classroom.
8-11 years old:
- “From eight to eleven, children’s geographical ranges expand rapidly […] Children’s homes become small, inconsequential, and often move to the periphery of the map. The central focus in their maps is the ‘explorable landscape.’ […]”
- Take away: Encourage children to explore nearby parks, their playgrounds, and their neighborhoods.
- Ideas: Map out where trees, flowers, and wildlife are observed, and try to start noticing patterns (i.e., do the same flowers appear in the same place each year?).
12-15 years old:
- “From 12 to 15, the maps continue to expand in scope and become more abstract, but the favoured places often move out of the woods and into town. Social gathering places […] take on new significance.”
- Take away: Encourage children to think about how the natural environment and the urban environment interact.
- Ideas: Map out local food systems or watershed cycles, emphasizing how children interact directly with these systems.
- Sobel’s book, Mapmaking with Children: Sense of Place Education for the Elementary Years, is a great resource that explains how to use mapmaking as a leisure or educational activity.
- The website www.theydrawandtravel.com offers gorgeous drawings and maps which can inspire your own, and they have even published books full of them.
2. Field journaling
The field journal is my absolute favorite way to explore and learn about the natural world.
Click here to view my Guide to Sketching & Field Journal Basics, which explains what a field journal is, and how even non-artists can keep one or facilitate students (of any age) using one. Keep reading for the basic overview.
A field journal combines words and sketches in a way that records both what you see and what you wonder.
For this reason, field journals and sketchbooks have always been important tools for scientists, writers, and artists.
When Samuel Champlain, Leonardo Da Vinci, Maria Sybilla Merian, and others engaged in the journeys and studies that literally changed the world, they used a simple tool. In their field journals, they recorded what they saw, their countless questions, speculations about the answers, and much more.
Today, children and adults can still produce illustrated journals that record discoveries, adventures and personal experiences.
Also known as location sketching or urban sketching (if you are in a town or city), the practice of field journaling encourages you to take opportunities to slow down and concentrate. When you record your thoughts and observations, using words and drawings, you are compelled to examine your subject more closely.
You can turn any sketch into a field journal entry by:
Including some basic information (time, date, location, weather, etc.);
Writing detailed observations to accompany your sketch.
- My Guide to Sketching & Field Journal Basics explains what a field journal is, and details how even non-artists can keep one or facilitate students (of any age) using one.
- This field journal curriculum and Drawn to Science offer lesson plans and advice to help children contemplate and investigate.
- The Nature Connection: An Outdoor Workbook for Kids, Families, and Classrooms by Clare Walker Leslie is a great intro to field journaling and nature observation.