Research Summary

From nature deficit to outdoor exploration: Curriculum for sustainability in Vermont's public schools

Vermont elementary school educators find ways to effectively integrate environmental education into their practice

Journal of Adventure Education and Outdoor Learning

The aim of this research was to identify viable and accessible models of effective environmental education for the classroom with a specific focus on place-based education. The study was based on the understanding that place-based education can be used to address concerns relating to nature deficit disorder and to promote ecological responsibility. Place-based education uses local resources and systems -- both built and natural -- to educate students about the unique characteristics of the local environment. Place-based education strategies include giving students an active role in the care and upkeep of their local communities.

Nine elementary teachers in Vermont participated in this project: eight K–5 public school teachers and one after-school program coordinator at a local Waldorf School. The teaching experience of the participants ranged from 2.5 to 30 years. The teachers taught at six different schools in communities with different demographics. While the teachers had varied instructional styles, they were all committed to having students learn in outdoor environments.

The teachers shared information about their vision and practice in outdoor education through one-on-one interviews with the researchers. The interviews were approximately 45 minutes in length and included questions about national and local curriculum, student engagement and behavior in an outdoor setting, and teacher perspectives on best practices in environmental education. The interviews were recorded and transcribed. The researchers also conducted eight field observations to collect information about environmental education strategies used by the teachers and the students’ responses to the outdoor education experiences.

The researchers identified four themes relating to the strategies used by the teachers to successfully integrate environmental education into their practice: adventuring outside; building holistic curriculum; embracing and personalizing place-based education; and student choice and exploration. The teachers emphasized the importance of cooperation, exploration and respect as a foundation for outdoor learning experiences. While they acknowledged the importance of setting guidelines to manage behavior and create space for adventuring, the teachers indicated that they had no major discipline issues and implied that behavior was better outdoors than inside.

The teachers supported an interdisciplinary approach to environmental education, which they felt benefits students and educational programs. Some teachers justified their outdoor education curriculum by describing it in terms of accepted discipline norms. They created curriculum that both aligned standards and empowered students with exploration and creativity. Teacher responses confirmed how every community offers unique learning opportunities for their students. Such opportunities include service-learning activities empowering students to make a positive change in their local environment. The outdoor education approach used by the teachers supported students in following their own interests in exploration and play.

While this was a small study conducted in one area in northern Vermont, a belief expressed by the researchers is that the strategies the teachers used for environmental education can be applied to other places and that the results could help students develop the skills and values basic to environmental stewardship. They call for more research to support this understanding.

Silverman, J., & Corneau, N.. (2017). From nature deficit to outdoor exploration: Curriculum for sustainability in Vermont's public schools. Journal of Adventure Education and Outdoor Learning, 17(3), 258-273. doi: