Ana Maria Caballero shares the magic of nature with young learners in the Arboretum.
Recently I took a small group of kindergartners on a forest walk atop an esker at the Arnold Arboretum. A tree-covered, glacial ridge, it was a cool and shady spot on an otherwise sunny, hot, dry day. A red robin seemed to be leading the way, lowering its head while running and lifting it when stopped, keeping an eye on us as we observed it carefully. It disappeared behind a downed log covered in moss. The children were immediately drawn to it, touching the green velvet and looking for spiders and ants. Across the path, a child discovered the lower part of the downed log: a wide, hollowed-out snag that created a life size cocoon big enough for six children. They all quickly settled inside, perching on the damp decomposing wood continuing to look for spiders and other creatures. One child commented, “Sometimes you can find salamanders in the woods,” to which I replied that it’s been so dry lately that most of them have gone deeper underground. “That’s because there is water underground, right?” she asked. After a few silent moments she asked, “Do you think we are walking on salamanders?” I was so surprised by this insight and this moment: fearless children connecting to the natural world with curiosity and joy.
Sharing such experiences of young children in nature, and how to promote more of them, is what prompted the convening of a panel of outdoor educators at Boston University this spring. As Outdoor Educator at the Arnold Arboretum, I support Boston Public School students who come for guided and self-guided field trips to learn in our landscape, as well as train our volunteers and offer professional development for educators throughout the year. As such, I have long followed research affirming the many benefits of nature to adults and children. Health benefits include lower blood pressure, reduced stress, a boost to the immune system, and increased anti-cancer proteins. Cognitive gains include improved focus and higher scores on standardized tests. Other benefits include fewer sleep difficulties, faster healing after illness, increased emotional resilience and stronger mental health. Recently, doctors have pegged Computer Vision Syndrome (CVS) as a direct consequence of too much screen time, and there is a documented increase in myopia (nearsightedness) in young children. Surprise! Being outdoors can alleviate these symptoms, as children look out in the distance and relax the eyes.
But the benefits extend far beyond this, as I have seen with the children who attend our field study programs—two-hour landscape explorations of specific life-science content, which happen in small groups led by trained volunteers. Unlike a snake-oil salesperson, I can say that we truly have the remedy for so much that ails us. I’ve noticed so many benefits; at the BU panel I discussed just five, which I share with you here.
Active Agency in Learning
Learning outdoors teaches children a sense of scale and perspective, reinforces the cyclical nature of time and space, and introduces children to experiences and words upon which later learning is built. This is how background knowledge is created. Children become the star when they experience the concept: seeing the seasons change, following the germination and growth of a plant outdoors, discovering the effects of a rainstorm on the earth, breaking apart stones, “climbing” the shadow of a tree limb or coming face to face with a snapping turtle for the first time. These experiences introduce vocabulary and demand that children narrate what they see, hear, and feel. In response, they use words in context, invent words creatively, and make connections between English and their first languages. This is learning that integrates physical, cognitive, emotional, and social domains; this is learning that puts the child in the driver’s seat.
Being in nature brings book and classroom learning to life by putting all that information in context. We begin with the premise that science is learning about the world around us, and the world around us is the natural world. Vocabulary and concepts make more sense when children can touch, smell, hear, and explore these same words and concepts in real life—in context. It is here that we can see that a holly leaf has sharp prickles to prevent herbivory, or that a hawk does not always catch the snake, or that vines have tendrils that curl “just like my hair!”
This story illustrates the need for context: an elementary age child confessed to one of our guides that she was afraid of squirrels, with their big front teeth, rat-looking faces, and size. When the guide asked this child “how big do you think a squirrel is?” the child indicated with her hand an animal about two feet tall! This child had never really seen or noticed a squirrel in context, perhaps, but only in books or movies. I have seen firsthand how being in natural context has helped children overcome perceived misconceptions and fears. Once the child catches their first bee or centipede in a bug box, all worry, fear, and disgust at the task goes away—they can’t get enough of digging through leaf litter looking for critters, or appreciating the pollen baskets on bees’ legs.
The outdoors is messy! Unexpected things happen to frustrate, delight, and surprise every day. The rain begins to fall. You come across a dead squirrel. The salamander you so very much wanted to see didn’t make an appearance. Someone left their dog-poop bag on the path. A tree has to be cut down because of a storm. A coyote follows a dog on a leash. When children encounter unexpected events, they learn to manage disappointment, and perhaps fear or worry, in proportion with the encounter—especially when they are involved in addressing and finding solutions for the situation. They learn to be flexible and to come up with alternatives. Tolerating discomfort that comes from unpredictable and messy nature leads children to develop a sense of personal competence. Part of growing up is learning how to release these negative emotions in the face of inevitable stress. If kids never figure out how to do that, they’re more likely to experience severe anxiety as teenagers. These experiences outside are often the most memorable of unexpected wonders. An adult’s job is to help children navigate these surprises with respect, simplicity, and empathy.
Children who are outdoors learn from a very young age that their actions and interactions
with the natural world affect the natural world. It is one thing to be indoors and learn about trash or talk about how cutting trees is bad for the environment. It is quite another to see the effects of human activity on our world. When children see trash in the water stream, a tree branch broken under the weight of a climber, or dry, yellowing fields at the height of summer, they are primed for conversations that can center on activism and purpose. Young children who learn to love the outdoors are more likely to become adults who work to preserve it for future generations.
So often after a session, young children tell us that they don’t want to leave, they want to live here forever, they see the Arboretum as a magical place. They are filled with possibility. Very quickly, many children come to feel a sense of belonging that comes from the peace, calm, and happiness that they experience in the outdoors. Joy. They want to share this place with their families, they want to come back.
As educators, parents, and caregivers, we need to be intentional in letting children be children for as long as possible. Childhood and the natural world are wonderful spaces to be in. This habitat of childhood needs to be tended and protected. If we do it right, this magic stays with them throughout life.
Ana Maria Caballero is Outdoor Educator at the Arnold Arboretum.