The Real Common Core: Digging in the Dirt, Climbing Trees, and Observing Wildlife

Why Schools Should Encourage Teachers to Take Students Outside

As my ninth grade students walk around the small fragment of forest on our New Jersey campus, one of them points to a mound of reddish-orange dirt in the distance. This group of students has volunteered to be part of our school camera trap project and they are looking for the best place to set up a trailcam. After discussing it for a few minutes, the group places the trailcam on a nearby tree and decide to leave it for a week. I check my watch and realize lunch will be over in just a few minutes, so we head back towards the building. As the students walk into school, they laugh and joke, smiles on their faces. The stress that normally rises to the top in their conversations is nowhere to be found as they talk about what they might see on the camera, knocking the mud off their shoes as they head to their lockers. My students have been setting up trail cameras around our building for two years. They blog about the wildlife they see and they even went viral last year! This isn’t a required project and the students who participate do so on their own time. While they are busy and often stressed, I never see that stress when they are working on the camera traps. Why?

High school students are stressed. Since 2013, teens have reported feeling more stress than adults, according to the American Psychological Association. At the same time, the argument has been made that teenagers need to spend more time outside. They need time away from glowing screens, ringing phones, and buzzing social media alerts. Yet our schools have added computers in every class, adopted “bring your own device” policies, and cut gym classes and recess in favor of trying to raise test scores. Research has shown that one way many schools have found more time for academics is by cutting recess and physical education And constant access to technology often brings more stress. A 2013 study conducted by Karla Klein Murdock of Washington and Lee University found that text messages and social media messaging left college students vulnerable to interpersonal stress, leading to sleep problems and lower levels of emotional well-being.

No longer are students bored and daydreaming during downtime; instead they are constantly connected to the world through the cell phone in their pocket. Because of the emphasis on standardized testing brought on by No Child Left Behind, there are few opportunities for students to experience nature at school and thanks to easily accessible technology they rarely choose to experience it at home. Most of my high school students tell me they spend little to no time outside on a daily basis, but they admit to being constantly tethered to technology. Why do we continue to bring technology into class but neglect to offer students the opportunity to learn more about the world outside their door? It’s time for schools to build time outside into their curriculum in all classes.

It’s time for schools to start seeing the schoolyard and campus as something more than playgrounds and sports fields. We may not think of them as natural areas due to the abundance of people and buildings; however, even small spaces can help students connect with the natural world. Children and teens spend the majority of daylight hours at school; we need to provide them with opportunities to get out of the building and into nature. What if our schools focused on the importance of building a relationship between the next generation and nature?

Too often, time outside is viewed as a waste of time, or something better left to science teachers. But why should science teachers get to have all the fun? English, history, math, art, music, foreign language, and/or gym teachers can create interdisciplinary projects, like the camera trap project, that require students to use inquiry to answer questions about the natural world. Science classes can lead inquiry projects in the school yard. Citizen science projects and student research projects can draw classes out of the classroom and into the school yard. English classes can practice nature writing out on the quad or on the soccer field. Math classes can look at the Fibonacci sequence found in nature or measure plants and buildings. History classes can investigate the past uses of the land the school is built on. Music and art classes can study artists inspired by nature and then mimic them by searching outside for inspiration. My high school students recently created a field guide of local species and the project involved writing, research, geography, history, and current events. Whether the school is surrounded by acres of woods and fields or miles of concrete, teachers and administrators must encourage students to spend time outside and provide the opportunity to do so.

Being outside has other important benefits for students as well. According to the Children & Nature Network, spending time outdoors can improve children’s sleep, it has public health benefits, and childhood nature exposure can help predict adult mental well-being. When my students spend time outside during field studies or on nature walks they report feeling less stressed. Florence Williams new book The Nature Fix highlights the fact that as few as 15 minutes in the woods has been shown to reduce levels of cortisol, the stress hormone. When nature exposure is increased to 45 minutes there is an increase in cognitive ability. In this day and age where data is king in schools and test scores are held up as a sacred standard, schools should be jumping at the opportunity to help their students be healthier and perform better. The best part is that nature is free. There’s no computer program to buy or equipment to purchase- everything needed to get results is outside the school door.

In addition, research shows that formative experiences in nature during childhood and adolescence are the most important source of environmental appreciation later in life; adults who are active in conservation often cite childhood experiences with the natural world as one of their most critical inspirations. Yet our schools are designed in a manner that denies students the opportunity to observe the world around them. In a time when the EPA and environment are under attack we need to make sure the next generation will value the world around them. We must create a generation of conservationists to stop the decline in biodiversity. In order to do this, we must provide the next generation with formative natural experiences in their backyards and schoolyards.

In January 2016, the World Wildlife Fund declared that more than half the world’s wildlife has been lost since 1970 and human activity is mostly to blame. Over the past few months, EPA regulations have been weakened, fossil fuel companies have gained ground, and scientific research budgets have been slashed. Now is the time we must work to ensure that the next generation steps forward to reverse the earth-defying course of action we seem to be on.

My students and I will continue to observe and learn about the species that call our campus home and hopefully my teens will grow up to value the land that they walk on, drive on, and build on. I hope they will realize that nature has many benefits: cognitive, social, and ecological. But if we expect students to value the ecosystem they are a part of we must provide opportunities for them to do so. Those opportunities should not happen only on vacations or in “wild” places. They must happen everyday in school, too.