The Importance of Outdoor Education in a Digital World

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I grew up in a large city.  Swapping childhood stories with my husband, he was appalled when I explained that recess at the schools that I attended meant being released to an enclosed, asphalt yard.  I counted myself lucky that I actually had a backyard at home with trees and flowers.  Most of my friends only had a small square of grass in front of their house.  Needless to say, our exposure to nature was a bit limited.

Luckily, the private school that I went to recognized this need.  We had an environmental education program in grades 4 through 6, where we got to stay at a campground for a few days in the fall and the spring.  I recently asked some old schoolmates about it, and found that they have as many treasured memories of the experience as I do.

Unlike me, my children are growing up in a more rural area.  They have much more experience with nature than I did.  Even so, when we went camping for our family vacation this year, and completely disconnected from electronics (no TV, cell phones, or other devices), my children were even more engaged with the world around them than normal.  Some of the things that we did were:

  • Identified leaves and plants that we found
  • Learned about wildlife that was native to the area
    • Learned the differences between venomous and non-venomous snakes
    • Learned how to identify raptors in flight
  • Collected leaves, ferns, etc. and made charcoal rubbings and sketches in nature journals
  • Observed and felt moss growing
  • Found a bird’s nest
  • Saw the natural growth and decay of the forest
  • Learned how to build a fire and cook over it
  • Practiced carving wood
  • Collected pine resin and learned some uses for it

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My son actually remarked that he thought life was better without TV!  Being outside without the distractions of modern society allows for more intimacy with nature and with each other.  We interact more fully with each other.  It inspires awe.  It demands use of all of the senses and strengthens observation skills.  Navigating on uneven terrain helps to develop core strength and a sense of balance.  Self-directed learning occurs naturally in the outdoors, as children ask questions about the world around them.

In my son’s case, I’ve watched his confidence grow as he is now able to answer some of his younger sister’s questions.  Sometimes, he can even answer mine, when he shares a tidbit that he has learned from his father.

Of course, we can’t camp all the time, but now that it is spring, we often finish up our school day with a walk.  I ask them to point out any signs of spring that they notice and it is fun to witness the progression from day to day.  The exercise, fresh air, and connection with nature is calming and has pretty much the opposite effect on them that screen time does.  Screens have their place in our lives, but they cannot replace time spent outdoors, which meets a need that seems to be instilled in us from our Creator, to recognize our part in His creation.

 

“But now ask the beasts, and they will teach you;

And the birds of the air, and they will tell you;

Or speak to the earth, and it will teach you;

And the fish of the sea will explain to you.

Who among all these does not know

That the hand of the Lord has done this,

In whose hand is the life of every living thing,

And the breath of all mankind?”  – Job 12:7-10

 

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It’s Time to Start Seeds!

green grass close-up in spring

As spring approaches, I am looking forward to what has become a homeschool ritual for us at this time of year – starting seeds.  When my son was in kindergarten, I decided that would be a good science lesson for him.  However, it became a learning process for me as well.

After growing seedlings indoors, we ended up transplanting them outdoors after the ground thawed.  We learned about caring for the garden, when to harvest the fruit and vegetables, and finally, how to save seeds for the next year.  Each spring, we begin the process again and try new things.  We experimented with starting the seeds in different types of containers, growing various types of plants, and planting them in the garden in new ways.  We have tried a raised pallet garden, container planting, and a hugelkultur.  We learned how to compost.  We fought with powdery mildew, blight, pests, and made homemade sprays to deal with some of these issues.  We learned about pollination and even hand-pollinated some squash.  We expanded our garden last summer and let the area that comprised the original garden lay fallow.  This summer, we will test whether that has a positive impact on our plants.

If you would like to try seed-starting with your children:

  1. Find out your plant hardiness zone to figure out what seeds to plant and when.
  2. Gather supplies.
    1. Pick a container. You can order a seed-starting kit, use egg cartons, Styrofoam cups, peat pots, etc.
    2. Pick seeds. Tomatoes, peppers, eggplant and some flowers are often started inside.
    3. Pick up some seed-starting soil. You can make your own or buy it, but it is different than regular potting soil.
    4. Download one of the free plant life cycle worksheets or seed journals that are available online to teach your children about the process.
  3. Place some soil in your chosen containers, water well and add a seed to each. Push carefully into soil.  Cover with plastic wrap.  Prick small holes in the plastic wrap as well as the bottom of your containers for drainage.  Keep in a warm spot or place on a seed heating mat.
    1. Label each seed! We write on plain popsicle sticks that we insert in the soil.
    2. Water often, but use something with a gentle flow, to avoid displacing seeds. We’ve used a spray bottle or a water bottle with a small hole made in the cap.
  4. Once the plants emerge, remove plastic wrap and move into a sunny spot.
  5. When the seedlings get their second pair of leaves, move to larger pots with plenty of compost.
  6. If you are going to transplant to the garden, harden them off about a week before planting.

Of course, not everyone has a backyard that is large enough for a vegetable garden.  One friend of mine starts seeds with her children indoors and they watch the seedling grow, but the process ends there.  Another grows her plants in containers.  There are many ways to incorporate it into your homeschool, regardless of whether you live in a rural or urban area.

I have found it to be such a rich learning experience.  Not only is it hands-on, but it inspires awe in the perfection of God’s creation and His provision for us.