Integrating Environmental Ed / Nature Play | eePRO @ NAAEE

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Integrating Environmental Ed / Nature Play

Though I am a veteran teacher (32 years) I have just become involved in the environmental education / nature play realm of education for our youngest learners. In the past I did incorporate EE into my teaching (Project WILD, Project WET & others), but since taking a 3 day course on Nature Play - let's just say it has become my passion. I am a PreK-3 Content Specialist and I'm working diligently to help our teachers in Mesa, AZ learn how to incorporate EE and Nature Play into their teaching and learning in the classroom. I would love to hear your stories and also some strategies and best practices to assist teachers with the transitions to this type of learning.

Hi Cheryl,
I started to write to you yesterday…because I was interested in your post. As the moderator of the Connecting to Nature Blog and a lifelong EE person…who evolved into the field over time, I wanted to respond to you. Alas…as I was almost half-way through writing my on-line connection was lost and all I had written was gone. This time I am being more cautious and writing in Word and will transfer this when I am finished.

I directed a Center for Environmental Education for fifteen years at Murray State University. We had a program to introduce teachers-to-be with EE in an overnight, immersive program. From that we built our graduate program for teachers that included the opportunity to add EE to their teacher certification. It was based upon the NAAEE accreditation process and the work done by Bora Simons and Rick Wilke and a host of others. Our program pre-dated the formal accreditation with NAAEE, but the spirit of it actually encompassed the program.

We worked with about 400-500 undergrads per year and about 300 graduate students also. All of them took place outdoors, away from the rows and chairs of the university classroom and at the USFS facility for EE and Recreation at beautiful Land Between the Lakes.

Over time our undergrad program in EE evolved as a result of how teachers-to-be changed…to the techno era in which we currently are a part. As we started our effort to reach undergrads we did not tell them what they were about to do and my grad assistant and I looked at the open-response evaluations and he suggested we be direct. This started my effort to give them a glimpse of what they were about to do…all hands-on, all experiential and immersive. It was intense and tiring for us. But our thought was you can not hope to interest people in a way of teaching and learning…as Gerry Lieberman calls it the Environment as an Integrating Context. His research is pretty clear – EE is coalesces things – it brings things together…those subjects that seem to be separate and which people tend to not see their value in problem solving, critical thinking and making meaning.

In our effort to interest young, pre-service teachers who often thought our EE class was just another thing to do, we had to make it connect to them. The first thing we did was to use models…teachers who had EE and used EE in what they did. They helped me teach the weekend class for undergrads…and it helped immensely. College professors do not always have such reputability with them, but teachers do. Teachers that model behavior in the activities they did with me for the undergrads helped to let them see, teaching was intense but could be extremely engaging and fulfilling using EE. Did all of the undergrads get this? No, certainly not! But many did…and I prayed those who did would obtain jobs as teachers. Am I certain of this, not at all.

The 36 hours of this undergrad experience left little time to breathe….but with undergrads we had found if we provided time for reflection, they believed the experience could have been done in 2 hours in the classroom. We used many activities with these persons that included the arts, the humanities, math, science, language arts, physical education and so on. They especially liked the arts – such as acting, making music, writing poetry, and being involved in using art.

However the most important part of our effort began with exploration…a “theme hike” (which was a short walk – because many of our undergrads were out of shape and we did not want them to think one had to walk two miles to do EE). The hike was based upon the concept of interdependence. First we engaged them in at least two activities that made them work together – some of Carl Ronke’s Work…not strenuous activities but created a community – imagine they were working together to be able to obtain a satisfactory outcome. The simple notion of working together is not as common as we may have believed. Metaphorically my son played college baseball. But he shared with me how the coach did not value the concept of working together. Imagine a team sport where the members are not encouraged to work together – perhaps that is why their team was so awful. I mention this because group work, community is not as common an idea any more.

So I mention this because I have found that if we want teachers to do things in EE, to value them, to engage their children, they have to have had the experiences themselves. Exploring and being a model of being interested in nature – not in the way some see it – telling people what they are seeing, naming items, etc. does not “turn kids on” nor does it interest adults. I remember how Joseph Cornell and his Flow Learning; then Rachel Carson in her quote, “ If a child is to keep alive his inborn sense of wonder without any such gift from the fairies, he needs the companionship of at least one adult who can share it, rediscovering with him the joy.” Being there as an explorer is the ticket…not as the purveyor of all knowledge.

Adults and children must have opportunities to have free play…to discover and to “feel nature.” As Rachel has said and resonates with me, ”It is not half important to know as to feel.”

Rich Louv shared how he had the time to explore without direction in the out-of-doors with some cardboard boxes…the best toy in the world – and it is the most inexpensive one as well. But we took this all under advisement with our undergrads and gave some time for them to explore – with some open, creative questions and the opportunity to seek. Being a part of the seeking, observing I found was critical and introduced some opening for EE without being encumbered with names of things and titles and the endless, droll things students learned science was to them. I cannot tell you how many persons who disagree with giving some time to explore for children – as one colleague said to me – “they cannot do it.” But as Rachel has told me in her book, The Sense of Wonder, exploration is essential. So we modeled this…and for many undergrads it was eye opening. Many thought EE was going outside, naming things and getting dirty – heavens they were wrong…but they needed to discover this on their own.

The Theme Hike connected them to community, interdependence and the conclusion of the morning was a food web to show interconnections.

During the morning we had numerous activities that our small groups selected based on their group and what they thought would work with the group. Sometimes I had a person who visited my group and the undergrads chose natural objects to create tympanic instruments – they learned whole, half, quarter, eighth, and sixteenth notes by playing their instruments. It was contextual…the undergrads loved it…it showed them the possibilities of EE through the eyes of the arts.

Sorry I have droned on…the last activity of their experience I asked what they loved the most at school – 85 percent of them liked being outdoors for something. I mentioned Last Child in the Woods and the findings and Lieberman’s study…and connected them to what they extolled as the best things they did in school…and what they should attempt to do – because it matters.

It was successful, but not everyone understood…but I am sure it had a better and more extensive success than their experiences in university classrooms. I know this is true.

Sorry for the length of my response…as you can see I am passionate too about EE…because I have seen the impact.

Perhaps I will see you at the NAAEE Conference in Lexington KY....

I appreciated your post and it brought back some great memories! I was an intern at Land Between the Lakes at Brandon Springs back in the early 1980s. I remember helping to put on some teacher education workshops there for undergrads with classroom teachers serving as mentors. These were powerful experiences for a 20 year old student-intern looking to shape a career in environmental education. 35 years later, I'm an EE teacher in Maryland and have benefited greatly from those early experiences at Land Between the Lakes!

I am the director of the early childhood center at the University of Connecticut as well as a faculty member in Human Development and Family Sciences. UConn has just added an Environmental Literacy requirement for all undergraduate students. I would like to create a course that brings together our preschool children with the college students around environmental literacy with a focus on one or more of the following:

1. theories, observations, or models of how humans impact the health and well-being of the natural world;
2. theories, observations, or models of how the natural world affects human health and well-being;
3. public policies, legal frameworks, and/or other social systems that affect the environment;
4. moral and/or ethical dimensions regarding the environment;
5. cultural, creative, or artistic representations of human-environment interactions.

In my searches, I haven't found any models for this so I am hoping people might have some thoughts to share! Thank you!

Hi Anne,
My absolute favorite is a book entitled "An Early Start to the Environment" by Roy Richards. You can download a copy free here:
Roy was an educator and an illustrator. His books have very few words and depict the children at the center of activity.
I also recommend a book by Rebecca Reynolds entitled "Bring Me the Ocean." Reynolds' program focused on bringing the natural world to those who were unable to be outside, such as children with cancer, limited abilities, or other illnesses. Neither is a full program but meet your objective 5 and can inspire your undergraduate students in their work with young children. Best wishes!

Hi Anne,

Your first two focus options are related to the relationship between human and environmental health. I suggest that you look into the One Health concept. University of Washington has a center ( dedicated to research and education on such ideas. I would be interested to hear more if you can find an age-appropriate way to introduce these ideas to preschoolers!

Kate Campbell, PAWS Educator, WA

Hello Cheryl, I live in AZ too, Tempe. I actually run an outdoor program for homeschoolers. We expanded this year and are offering a K-3rd program. We incorporate activities (storytime, art, project wild, etc) but we also have a few free nature/exploration play breaks during the day. I am a huge advocate of nature play. If you ever want to come check it out let me know. We meet every other Tuesday 10-2 at various locations. My website is

Kathy, I would love to come and visit your program. I went to your website and your program sounds awesome. I will contact you soon to come by for a visit on a Tuesday. Thank you so much for the invite.