Blog 5: Outdoor Education; can it be the answer to restoring our connection with nature?
A blog about Outdoor Education in Slovenia
With more than 60% of its land area covered in forest, Slovenia feels rich, and wild. In the Slovenian forests live wild brown bears, lynx and wolves. Such a change from the Netherlands.
We are nature
I love being in nature. When I am in nature, I feel connected and part of a bigger whole. When I see nature suffer, it hurts me emotionally. This fuels my intrinsic motivation to contribute to action on climate change and, therefore, drives me to search for ways in which education can contribute to a more sustainable society. I’m not the only one; according to Kaiser, Hartig, Brügger, & Duvier “While environmental knowledge provides the intellectual basis, a person’s appreciation for nature has been corroborated to be a formidable motivational force linked with the overall ecological performance of individuals”. If you define the goal of education for sustainability as moving people to take action for a more sustainable world, fostering the appreciation and love for nature forms the base of such education. So how can we as educators facilitate this?
Learning in nature is a part of the Slovenian National Curriculum
I was happy to learn that the educational system in Slovenia, a country with such abundant nature, has mandated learning in and about nature in its national curriculum. It includes something the Dutch education system sadly lacks: Outdoor Education; experiential learning in the outdoors. One of the aims of outdoor education is to develop a deeper relationship with nature. In this blog I’d like to unpack the idea that outdoor education can form an important part of education for sustainability, as well as share some practical tools that I learned at an Outdoor Education Conference in Slovenia.
Based on the understanding that being outside is essential to connect to the natural world, the Slovenian curriculum for the first nine years of school requires students to have at least two weeks of learning outdoors. This is facilitated by the government through 30 state-funded outdoor education centers scattered around the country. These centers are staffed with teachers specialized in outdoor education. School groups of up to 80 students can go there for outdoor education camps ranging from three to five days. Included in the programme is environmental education, cultural education and depending on the center’s site and situation, sports such as skiing, swimming, kayaking, caving and hiking. What I liked is that the Slovenian government really supports and enables teachers to do this, by both including it in the national curriculum, and through its structure of outdoor education centres.
But of course, a deep connection to nature is not forged during two camps in nine years alone. Slovenia’s Center for Outdoor Education also provides teacher training on how to teach in the outdoors during normal schooltime. The lovely people of the Outdoor Education Department invited me to their conference themed: Forest; the best place for outdoor learning on climate education. Dr Gregor Torkar, associate professor at the University of Ljubljana one of the keynote speakers, spoke about how over time the natural areas that people (can) move in freely have decreased. If we are not outside, we don’t emotionally connect with nature. Underlining the importance for schools to take students into nature. Moreover, the frequency with which this happens is also important, as it helps us see the changes in our environment. A couple of teachers I spoke with at the conference told me they have made it a habit to take their students outside for a morning or afternoon every week. Pedagogically this makes so much sense to me. But, since this has never been my practice, I was curious to learn practical ways to do this, some examples of which I’ll discuss below.
Resources for Educators
Teaching outside requires a different pedagogical approach. Some resources shared at the conference with ideas for how to do this are:
- The Handbook for Learning and play in the Forest. This book contains activities for learning through play that will bring children of different ages and their teachers closer to forest science. Activities are divided into four chapters: Trees, Forest Animals, Water and Genetic diversity. Slovenian researchers have designed the activities according to the principle of “flow learning”, which has its own laws in a certain sequence of steps: the excitement of enthusiasm, the focus of attention, the direct experience and the sharing of inspiration.
- Lessons in Grass. Includes resources and lesson ideas to teach different subjects such as science, mathematics and languages outside.
Both resources are more applicable for primary education but can be adapted to secondary schools too. One project really well suited for promoting outdoor education in secondary schools is NASA’s GLOBE program.
- GLOBE allows students to learn science skills, and contribute to environmental science through real data collection on environmental aspects such as weather or tree growth.
“When I was a child, and I was naughty, the worst punishment my parents could give me was to not allow me to go outside. Now the worst punishment for children is to take away their digital devices.” This anecdote shared by Dr Greg Torkar demonstrates how over time the connection with nature has been replaced by an online connection. As educators we can foster the love for nature by taking our students outside, in nature. It may be that establishing a deep connection with nature requires more than just being outside, but being outside definitely is a necessary start. What I learned in Slovenia is that to make educational improvement a success, it needs to be mandated by the government (e.g., in the national curriculum), as well as supported through training and resources. Could this be established in our Dutch system? And what would we need for this to happen? This year I hope to gather more ideas and teaching practices that restore our connection with nature, for we are one, but don’t always feel it.
Kaiser, F. G., Hartig, T., Brügger, A., & Duvier, C. (2013). Environmental protection and nature as distinct attitudinal objects: An application of the Campbell paradigm. Environment & Behavior, 45, 369–398.