About the Author

Kelly Keena, Ph.D is a Science Teacher Leader for a K-8 school in Denver, CO and a research affiliate for the Center for Children, Youth, and Environments at the University of Colorado. She also leads summer nature-based field programs for children and teachers.

ARE SCHOOLS BREAKING CHILDREN’S SPIRITS? Life and Learning Beyond Walls

When starting out as a teacher, I heard Joseph Cornell say that keeping children inside one room five days a week is akin to breaking a horse.  I’m haunted by that analogy. Our tendency is to keep children in, especially as academic demands only increase. And for discipline or missed work what do we do? Keep them in at recess. Breaking horses.

What would happen if we gave students opportunities to go outside and interact with the natural world as part of the school day? Does a natural classroom give us a way to maintain our students’ inner wildness, as Mercogliano calls it?*

We know that nature is critical in children’s development.  We know that children are losing access to independent explorations in nature.  Schools can provide children with experiences in nature, and typically, nature contact is not part of our national public schooling agenda.  Yet.  As teachers, we need to give children opportunities to be more than academics.

Audrey was a sixth grade girl in a school with a schoolyard habitat that was used as an outdoor classroom. During science class in fourth grade, her attention was turned to a small, hard, dark woody case surrounding the stem of an oak shrub. It was the size of a marble and was in a cluster of five other small round cases.  As she looked to other branches, she noticed that the clusters of balls were quite common all the way through the tangled scrub oak.

Intellectually, her curiosity was sparked.  Physically, she moved in long graceful strokes along the woods, her breath increasing and diminishing as she found other clusters, feeling the texture of them with her fingers, her notebook tucked under her arm.  Emotionally, she felt a sense of excitement build as she realized she had no idea what she was looking at, then wonder as she discovered that the balls were actually wasp galls – hard cases to protect the egg, then larva of the insect. For three years, Audrey visited the exact branch that first caught her attention and taught her classmates about the galls.

Jimmy was a sixth grade boy in the same school.  He was not interested in the woody galls. One morning in class, Jimmy and his classmates discovered a social trail through the scrub oak woods. The three boys crept carefully into the woods following the barely noticeable trail created by local coyotes or maybe deer.  The boys found that the trails wound through the very small patch of woods and that if they entered by the picnic table, they could emerge by the library.  Jimmy’s attention was fixed.

He went inside at the end of class that day, promptly opened his notebook, drew a map of the trails, and wrote a paragraph about the experience. That afternoon, we went back outside and he explored the woods on his own with a video camera.

The footage recorded his decision-making as he whispered to himself when he came to a fork in the trial, his breathing slowing and quickening in tune with the pace of his footsteps in the crunchy snow, and his exclamations when he found something unexpected.

Using these two stories out of hundreds collected during an eight-month study of this public, traditional school’s natural classroom habitat, there is evidence that supports children’s embodiment of so much more than intellect!  And yet, intellect and critical thinking was still very present in their experiences.  Through contact with a natural setting during the school day, the children in 4th-6th grade found imagination and adventure, critical thinking and curiosity, respite and relaxation, peace and calm, and ownership and identity.

The outdoor classroom developed the students’ sense of belonging to the school and to the natural world. The contact these children had with nature was also in a place where the children felt safe to explore at a distance from the teachers that felt safe. In some cases, it was the children’s the first contact with nature in a exploratory way.

If the question is about providing children with access nature, schools have an answer.  Even short, unstructured time in the schoolyard habitat with the sounds, textures, smells, space, and sensations showed value. The children were awake to the world, expanded to their own possibilities of their sensory channels, alive with curiosity and calm.  What a gift that schools can provide for an area of childhood that is vanishing at an alarming rate and at the same time, allow for children to feel the sense of wonder and joy in becoming familiar with the natural world.

*Mercogliano, C. (2007). In defense of childhood: Protecting kids’ inner wildness. Boston, MA: Beacon Press.

Photos by Kelly Keena

Additional Resources

C&NN Report: Children’s Contact with the Outdoors and Nature: A Focus on Educators and Educational Settings

The “Let’s Go Outside” Revolution: How One Woman Found Her Lifetime Mission

The Benefits and Joys of the School Garden

A New Role for Landscape Architecture

Be a Role Model
Help Reach 10,000 Pledges and The North Face will donate $10,000 to C&NN.
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Comments (13)

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  1. Katie says:

    I will be returning to the classroom this fall and am struggling with the desire to plan explorations and not just lessons. Your article pulls at my heartstrings and encourages me to keep brainstorm ways to teach the content (7th grade math) in a natural setting AND make it meaningful to students, parents, and administrators. If I can help teach students to be better investigators, identifiers, and critical thinkers then I will consider it mission-accomplished.

  2. Beautifully written piece that personalizes what it means for a child to learn outdoors. You present an interesting description of learning in a classroom – boldly calling out what many of us fear to be true.

  3. Kelly – Very nice post! Of course, here you’re preachin’ to the choir, but your thoughts make me wonder how best to get them into the heads of others who are too distracted to realize the stakes.

    Your adventure tales of the two kids may just be the best way to do it – stories are a powerful medium.

    Thanks for being such an articulate voice in our movement to reclaim curiosity and wonder!

  4. I absolutely agree that school indoors all day is breaking children’s spirits. I also think that working indoors all day breaks adults’ spirits. Society since the industrial revolution is making itself sick with all this indoor life. That the kids are rebelling with ADHD, etc, is to be expected.

    From the comment above, I’m thinking you need to format a curriculum . . .

  5. Also, perhaps schools can now be built next to wooded areas for every day exploring: tell the school boards and school builders! While an all nature school could be great, the needs of working parents, $ and many other factors must be taken into consideration. So nature needs to be appended to the schools. Just thinking out loud here. I’m going to post this post all over social media.

  6. Cathy Rehr says:

    I am so lucky to be able to teach preschoolers at our Nature Learning Center at Pilcher Park Nature Center in Joliet, IL. I get to not only plan nature lessons, but we get to explore hands on outside everyday. Sometimes the ‘plans’ I have change the minute one of the children find something of interest. That’s OK and totally encouraged, as somehow, someway, their interest is connected to the ‘lesson’ we originally planned!

  7. Sue Mandia says:

    Last spring I took my 5th graders out onto the front lawn of our school. I asked them to lay down on their tummies and tell me what they saw from that perspective. Six or seven of my 28 students balked at the idea of laying in grass! This actually comes as no surprise to me, since only 5 of them had ever even climbed a tree! I have gotten over my sadness re: the lack of outdoor exposure that my students have. My sadness has been replaced with a determination to change their “normal.” After reading The Last Child in the Woods (Louv) about six years ago, I wrote a grant entitled Planet Keepers which has enabled me to introduce many nature inspired activities and field trips to the 5th graders at my school.
    After 20 years of teaching 10 and 11 year olds I have seen the ramifications of technology over nature – and it’s disturbing. My personal observations of my students support much of what I read re: lack of ability to be creative, to be resourceful, to be critical thinkers, etc.
    I think it’s important to point out that I teach in an area of Pennsylvania that is ripe with opportunities to climb trees, to explore streams and creeks, and to even visit the Jersey beaches. My perfect “field trip” would be to just hang out next to a creek for the day to see what we can see! Musuems and art galleries are great, but nature deserves top billing! Can’t wait for the new school year to start! A whole new group of “Planet Keepers!” I always teach the prescribed curriculum, but I tell the kids that they can make a difference by caring for the earth. So – to that end, we will be finding lots of ways to get outside! After all – if they are never outside – why should they care what happens out there?
    I will be forever grateful that my family didn’t have a lot of money because I spent practically every waking minute in the woods behind my house. Actually – in the 60′s most kids played outside all day and into the night! I cherish my memories of building tree forts, watching momma possums with her babies, and collecting insects to observe. My own sons did the same things and to this day they find solace in the peacefulness of nature. My oldest is now a wilderness therapy instructor in Utah!
    The good news is that children inherently love being in nature. As long as we find ways to get them outside – they’ll be okay!

  8. Kathy Parra says:

    So excited to see this issue addressed in the light-love as it so deserves, this is the reason why we as a family decided to Unschool and have done so for over 14 years. Nature is the Universal Curriculum of life and shares it’s knowledge with us graciously. Namaste, Kathy Parra

    http://barefootseasons.wordpress.com/

  9. Bill Shively says:

    All of the above is great… and more. As A math teacher in a traditional public middle-school, a few years ago I convinced administration to let me take students canoeing to make them better at math. The results have been dramatic, especially in many Hispanic and low-socioeconomic students. Research informs that taking students out-of-doors benefits from the neuroscience, teacher-student relationship, social-emotional intelligence, and contact with nature perspectives. All kids like to have fun and explore and it is impossible to reproduce in an indoor setting-although many try.

  10. Kelly,
    This is a powerful story from a very important source: a teacher. A couple of years ago, Richard Louv asked me to help connect The Children & Nature Network with teachers. He called them Natural Teachers, so we created a Natural Teachers Network on a social media site that we call C&NN Connect. The web site url is listed above. I looked for your name on the registration list and didn’t find it. We need more teachers like you to speak out and encourage other teachers. If you register for the Natural Teachers Network, you will connect with other kindred spirits who can share your story and theirs. Please join us, invite all teachers to do the same, and post your stories often. Many thanks for the great work you are doing for kids. John

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  12. Suzanne says:

    This Mary Oliver Poem says it all. When I heard it at church yesterday, I knew i had to get it on here. Pay attention to: “By fall, I had healed somewhat . . . ” @ line 7. Love Mary Oliver, my Unitarian Churc and CN&N.

    Just as the Calendar Began to Say Summer

    I went out of the schoolhouse fast

    and through the gardens and to the woods,

    and spent all summer forgetting what I’d been taught…

    two times two, and diligence, and so forth,

    how to be modest and useful, and how to succeed and so forth,

    machines and oil and plastic and money and so forth.

    By fall I had healed somewhat, but was summoned back
    to the chalky rooms and the desks, to sit and remember

    the way the river kept rolling its pebbles,

    the way the wild wrens sang though they hadn’t a penny in the bank,
    the way the flowers were dressed in nothing but light.

  13. Vicky Titus-Washington says:

    Dear Kelly,

    This past July I attended a Nature Explore workshop in Nebraska and during the four short days that I was there I experienced a connection to nature that I wished children in my community could experience.

    I felt alive, invigorated, and peaceful. I know that this is something that all children need and would benefit from. Teaching in a large urban setting, in a traditional classroom structure, our children do not even have recess. Unfortunately, the big focus is on standardized testing, even for kindergarteners.

    When the children at my school were allowed to go outside, upon the teacher’s constant requests, the children reacted with such pleasure and relief. {I’m free!} Therefore, as a result of my experience this past summer and just understanding how important it is to meet the needs of the whole child, it is my intent to create outdoor experiences that will better address the needs of the child in a nature filled developmentally appropriate way. Thanks so much for the work that you are doing.

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