If ever there was an argument for outdoor education, it would have the be the years 2016-17.
The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency is under fire with talk of abolishing the regulator altogether. Earlier this year, the federal government imposed a temporary media blackout of the EPA, Department of Agriculture, Department of Health and Human Services, and the National Parks Service’s oversight agency, the Interior Department, giving rise to resistance efforts. The AltUSNatParkService, for example, went to social media to deliver information about climate change. Advertisements for t-shirts depicting Smokey the Bear with an upright fist and the word, “resist” popped up on social media. And, marchers protesting Pres. Trump’s policies are just as likely to carry signs advocating for science as they are for any of the myriad other issues circulating at this moment
The upheaval reflects a generalized basic misunderstanding of nature, one not limited to those holding political power in Washington, D.C., but one that is prevalent among many of us who spend our days indoors rather than bonding with nature.
By the time the nation’s families had packed their cars to celebrate the national parks’ 100th anniversary last summer, a head-spinning frenzy of vandalism and negligent behavior had hit the news, much of it in Yellowstone National Park.
Someone placed a baby bison into their vehicle and the animal later had to be euthanized when the herd refused to accept its return. Four men filmed themselves walking on the environmentally fragile Grand Prismatic Spring. A child was life-flighted out with severe burns when he and his father left the boardwalk and broke through the crust of a geyser.
Other parks suffered as well. A critically endangered pupfish died when three men illegally entered the Devils Hole geothermal pool in Death Valley National Park, and officials suspect they crushed eggs and habitat. A New York woman was convicted of graffitiing rock formations in several western United States parks.
Have people lost their minds? Perhaps, but the year’s activities cry out for increased outdoor and environmental education in our schools, from preschool through college. Outdoor education has always played second-fiddle to, for lack of a better term, indoor education. Students spend most of their lives with noses stuck in textbooks. Outdoor education usually shows up in elementary school as one or two overnighters with the class in a camp. The trips are expensive and, if fundraising isn’t successful, place a financial burden on families who don’t have extra money. Therefore, schools generally don’t require students to participate in outdoor education ventures as they would an in-class math assignment or science project.
Even with scholarships to cover the cost of some students’ outdoor education trips, we’re only talking about a week at the most out of an entire elementary school career. A school with an ambitious parent group might find itself on the receiving end of some nice field trips, but schools just don’t have the money, school buses are expensive to operate, and the logistics of carting dozens of young people can get crazy fast.
When youngsters finally arrive at their camps they will likely start an experience they will remember for the rest of their lives. Students usually hike, explore nature, cook some simple meals together, and complete their academics outside, sitting on rocks next to their friends instead of contained in student desks in a classroom.
The California Educator, the California Teachers Association’s magazine, and Och Tamale, the University of Redlands’ alumni magazine both featured articles about outdoor education on their covers in 2016. Och Tamale wrote about faculty and students taking their research outside to protect Southern California’s ecosystems, referring to “nature’s classroom.” California Educator encouraged teachers to walk their students outside to school gardens, nature trails, and the like to learn science, math, and art.
Project Learning Tree, an American Forest Foundation program, advocates environmental education – delivered outside – to make people more aware of nature and to teach respect of the environment. “Today’s generation of children is the first to grow up indoors,” PLT writes on its website. “Their plugged-in lives are often devoid of exploring the natural world.”
Maybe that’s why we have grown people who think it’s acceptable to shoot off locks to environmentally sensitive areas and take a swim in endangered species’ habitats. Or, why we have people who genuinely want to protect wildlife, but who don’t realize we must leave those animals alone. Or, why we have people who don’t respect the significant dangers wildlife pose, especially to those crouched outside their cars armed with a cell phone camera.
“I think children should definitely receive outdoor education,” said Jacob Tutty, a summer cook at Glacier National Park in Montana. “The outdoors should be a fundamental area of focus in the curriculums teaching young people about the world and what exists within it. I saw a group of three grown men, all looking well-equipped, hiking with about eight very young children. We were a mile or two in the back country of Flathead National Forest. The guys were taking the kids out for the day to give them a real raw, natural experience. That is something I think all young kids need to do. The outdoors shape the core of our survival instincts, food, shelter, water, etc.”
As for myself, I finally had to stop worrying about tourists in Yellowstone because the stress they caused me took a toll on my vacation. I saw a little boy balancing on a raised edge of a boardwalk so his mother could get a good photo of him with the boiling geysers below. I saw another child playing at the edge of a cliff. I was the only one who sounded the alarm, and his family seemed perplexed that I did. I photographed a surly man deliberately standing off the boardwalk.
On our way home, stopping at the Craters of the Moon National Monument and Preserve, I photographed a couple stealing lava rocks from the area and showed the photo to a park ranger who raced to catch up with them before they departed. The couple had attended a talk on rock formations in the area before going on their rock collection spree so, perhaps, education isn’t beneficial to all. But, my teenage daughter, who has grown up around California Fish and Wildlife Service employees and has accompanied me on most of my outdoor education interviews over the years, immediately recognized the couple for what they were and started to call them out on their behavior before I hushed her. After all, we were a distance from the visitor center and the nearest ranger ourselves. The man smiled smugly and made no attempt to conceal his rock.
NPS spokeswoman Victoria Stauffenberg encourages everyone who visits our nation’s parks to become stewards. “We appreciate everyone’s effort to help protect and preserve these special places for future generations to enjoy,” Stauffenberg e-mailed. “If visitors do not feel that it is appropriate or safe to say something to another visitor engaged in danger or damaging behavior, we encourage them to talk to a ranger as soon as they can by either calling the park visitor center or flagging down the next ranger they encounter in the park.”