Outdoor Education: A Breath of Fresh Air

Story by Kaitlin Montgomery with Bit & Grain     Photographs by Baxter Miller

Presented by our friends at Raleigh Recess


What if your day started with YES? 

Yes, you can traverse the great outdoors, breathing in fresh air and basking in sunlight. 
Yes, you can take a branch from a fallen tree. 
Yes, you can fasten it into a frame.
Yes, you can weave pine straw together.
Yes, you can combine them to make a really fantastic fort.
Yes, you can open a store inside with wares we’ve made from the clay. 
Yes, you can now help your peers build a bank, an arcade, and a post office. 

What if you asked for help creating this fort village & someone said YES? 

On the outskirts of Chapel Hill proper, there’s a place where this happens. A long gravel drive winds through a thicket of trees and, barely visible, something magnificent peers through a clearing: a giant teepee. The end of the drive bears a small gravel parking lot and an entrance to a grassy meadow, anchored by the 20-foot teepee, pole barns, a wigwam, a fruitful learning garden and a welcome sign detailing the day’s excursions. Chickens cluck in the background, water splashes from rain barrels into watering cans and goats bleat for the attention of their young caregivers. This is Learning Outside.

Learning Outside provides environmental education through its Forest Kindergarten, after-school programs and summer camps. Launched in 2009, it began as a vision of three educators, Wendy Banning (director), Livy Ludington and Tori Ralston, who shared a passion to create an outdoor learning program that would allow children of all ages a hands-on opportunity to learn from and develop a deep connection to the natural world.

With a low child-to-instructor ratio, Banning and Learning Outside’s crew of 11 instructors, comprised of dedicated educators, artists, naturalists and wilderness specialists, bring to life a year-round, exclusively-outdoor classroom. Situated on the Irvin Nature Preserve and Farm, a private 269-acre stretch of land owned and managed by the Triangle Land Conservancy (TLC), the property’s diverse ecosystem teems with inexhaustible opportunities for learning. With a creek, pastures, ponds, forests, and wetlands, the property is ideally suited for discovery and exploration.

There, youngsters of all ages learn how to identify edible plants from harmful mushrooms; how to classify animals from their tracks and skat; how to approach and treat goats, chickens and dogs; how to tend and harvest a garden; and how to forage for supplies sturdy enough for fort-building. Most importantly, they learn to say yes to each other in an open and accepting way. With open-ended activities, every camper’s approach to exploration, investigation and questioning is equally valued. They learn that there are no best ideas. They learn that the possibilities are endless.

Banning says, “Here, we teach the concept of choice over winning. We teach our youngsters if they’re playing a game and someone falls down to always stop and ask if they’re okay [and] see if they need anything like a sip of water, or if they want you to sit with them until they feel better. Here, the kids always have a choice.”

With an emphasis on inclusive, inquiry-based learning opportunities, the curriculum, which integrates the arts, sciences, and humanities, supports children’s diverse learning styles, strengthens their broader understanding of ecology and heightens levels of imagination and creativity, self-esteem and independence, and group awareness and ability to collaborate. 

Key to Learning Outside’s mission is providing opportunities to children of all backgrounds, especially those who lack access to outdoor learning experiences. Last year, 35% of summer campers, recommended by public school social workers, attended on fully-funded scholarships. 

Learning Outside is instilling a love and respect for the natural world. They have found that children who experience nature will care about conserving it. “We’re working to grow the next generation of land stewards,” Banning said. 

“Simply, we are nature. We need it and it’s essential that we all understand that,” said Nilda Cosco, Director of Programs at the National Learning Initiative (NLI), an organization devoted to promoting the importance of the natural environment in a child’s daily experiences. Housed in NC State’s School of Design, the NLI compiles and disseminates relevant research and educational materials to stakeholders and uses environmental design to collaborate with public and private partners who want to create interactive educational play areas for children.

The NLI, TLC and Learning Outside are leaders within the state movement to get people outdoors and embrace nature. Since the early 1980’s, TLC has been working to improve lives through conservation by identifying and preserving wild and working land throughout the Triangle. Across North Carolina, TLC owns, manages and protects 4,600 acres of land; they work to safeguard clean water, preserve natural habitats of plants and animals and support local farms while recognizing the importance of providing recreational opportunities like bird watching, hiking and canoeing. Diana Hackenburg, TLC communication manager, explained, “We are connecting people to nature. We’re conserving the land for them.”  

These three entities believe a childhood spent indoors slowly chips away at a generation’s connection to the land. Their remedy is simple in theory: engage people with the outdoors while they're young.

Outdoor recreation has waned over the last two decades. The average American child spends as little as 30 minutes in unstructured outdoor play each day and more than 7 hours in front of a screen. According to a report by the National Wildlife Federation (NWF), the shift from a childhood outdoors to one inside has greatly impacted children’s physical, emotional, and educational development. The report warns this shift hinders children’s social skills and contributes to rising rates of childhood obesity, diabetes, ADHD and asthma.

“Exposing them [young children] to and engaging them with the natural world very early in life… would help young children’s brains and bodies,” said Robin Moore, Director of the NLI. “Children’s mindsets and perceptions are, very often, open at that age level, so they’re going to, in a sense, be imprinted with those [outdoor] experiences and carry them forth as adults.”

Research shows that time outside can improve mental health for children and adults alike. A recent New York Times article describes a Stanford study where researchers found, “that volunteers who walked briefly through a lush, green portion of the Stanford campus were more attentive and happier afterward than volunteers who strolled for the same amount of time near heavy traffic.”

Conservationists, researchers, scholars and educators across the country are working to create unique programs that fight the tide of a society indoors.

Outdoor education programs are not widely available, but the understanding of their importance is growing rapidly. Summer camp spots at Learning Outside now fill up within days and the organization has grown from working with 60 children in its first year to over 370 today. Families are eager to speak to Learning Outside’s work. Amy Bernet, mother of a camper, said Learning Outside has taught her son, Charlie David, true autonomy. “It really helps them [the kids] put themselves in perspective,” said Bernet. “It’s empowering, it gives them such a sense of wonder and freedom."

“This sort of education sets a tone. There are so many ways of learning. Sitting at a desk… isn’t the only way,” said Lacey Adam, whose daughter, Melinda, was a participant of Forest Kindergarten at Learning Outside for three years. “It was a great match for Melinda as she became her own person.” Adams said. “To have a safe yet free environment for her to… let her own personality bloom. [It] was an amazing experience for both Melinda and us as parents. The way she handles herself and the things she learned from that environment are amazing, My daughter… has gone through a transformation. She just lights up now. ”

Imagine a generation of young people with a strong sense of self and environment. A group aware of the natural world around them and their place in it. A generation of land stewards committed to clean water, fresh air and vibrant communities.

Do you say yes?

This story is presented in partnership with our friends at Raleigh Recess, the collaboration of Nick Neptune of GOOD TIMES ASSURANCE CO. and Capital Club 16 to benefit Raleigh's Helping Hand Mission. For more info on how you can support kids while having a good time, visit their site.