Outdoor environmental learning broadens and deepens ecological connection and understanding

Cheeseman, A., & Wright, T. (2019). Examining environmental learning experiences at an earth education summer camp. Environmental Education Research, 25, 375 - 387.

Children today spend less time outdoors than they did in the past. This may be a result of technology, growing parental concerns and fears about the outdoors, and increasingly scheduled lifestyles. However, research suggests outdoor exploration and play can have numerous benefits, such as bolstering children's physical and mental health, building feelings of connectedness to nature, and encouraging pro-environmental behaviors. Outdoor summer camps are one way for children to spend intentional and quality time outdoors. As such, these camps are well positioned to offer environmental learning (EL) opportunities, which, in turn, can improve environmental knowledge, attitudes, and behaviors. This study explored the EL experiences of participants at a summer camp. Rather than focusing exclusively on learning outcomes, the researchers also investigated participants' experiences with learning process itself. This novel approach captured realizations participants had during their learning experiences and highlighted the learning experiences that were most impactful. The authors also explored how environmental knowledge, attitudes, and behavior changed as a result of participation in this particular summer camp and which experiences in camp led the campers to change perspective.

This study took place at an earth education summer camp called Sunship Earth located in Nova Scotia, Canada during the summer sessions in July 2015. Using both structured and unstructured activities, Sunship Earth educated campers on seven topics:

1. Energy flow (e.g., transfer of energy among species)
2. Diversity (e.g., biological diversity and its role in ecological resilience)
3. Cycles (e.g., nutrient cycles)
4. Community (e.g., roles different species play in their ecological community)
5. Interrelationships (e.g., predator/prey relationships)
6. Change (e.g., how soil changes over time)
7. Adaptation (e.g., physical adaptation)

Sunship Earth had two camp sessions every summer; each session lasted 6 days and accommodated 40 campers. Researchers recruited study participants through an in-person camp meeting and through camp materials distributed prior to camp. A total of 23 campers (10 female, 13 male, most age 11) chose to participate in the study. Participating campers completed the same survey on the first and last day of camp. The survey contained seven short-answer questions to assess campers' affective (feelings and attitudes) and behavioral (current and future actions) experiences. Responses could be written or drawn. Participants also answered 14 multiple choice questions to measure knowledge about the seven ecological topics listed above. The multiple-choice questions were statistically analyzed, while the short answer questions were analyzed by identifying common themes.

After analyzing the multiple-choice questions, the researchers concluded that, overall, participants demonstrated significant increases in knowledge. These knowledge increases, however, were not uniform across all ecological concepts. Participants significantly increased their knowledge of three topics during their camp experience: cycles, interrelationships, and adaptations. Given these knowledge increases, the authors concluded that the camp lessons on these topics were effective. The study did not find significant increases in knowledge for the other four concepts (energy flow, diversity, community, and change), and the concept of diversity was the most poorly understood. The researchers note that this may indicate a need for the camp to place greater emphasis on programming that teaches about those concepts.

From their analyses of the short-answer questions, the authors found that participants felt positively about their EL experiences. They particularly enjoyed activities that focused on learning about ecological concepts (as opposed to unstructured outdoor time). They preferred outdoor, hands-on, team-oriented activities to other types of activities and indicated that they felt happy and calm while learning in nature. While most campers expressed feelings of happiness, joy, and excitement in the pre-survey, campers described more complex emotions, such as feelings of compassion and empowerment, in the post-survey. After participating in the camp, participants expressed deeper care for the environment, a more complex understanding of nature, and a deeper desire to protect the natural world. In fact, the authors suggest that camp participation may have helped participants feel more positively about tackling environmental issues. Further, participants broadened their conception of a “learning space” to include the outdoors and developed a deeper appreciation for the value of environmental and outdoor learning.

Participants also reported more complex pro-environmental behaviors after camp participation. They progressed from basic pro-environmental behaviors (e.g., reducing pollution and planting trees) to more involved behaviors (e.g., caring for habitats and eating organic foods). Additionally, 61% of respondents identified more examples of pro-environmental behaviors in the post-survey than the pre-survey.

This study was limited in that it investigated a single Sunship Earth camp location. Including the other Sunship Earth locations in Ontario and Alberta could have substantiated the Nova Scotia findings, and the findings of this study are specific to the Nova Scotia location. Additionally, researchers recruited a relatively small number of students; a larger study may have produced different results. Further, the researchers noted that this camp was fee-based and only accessible to families who are able to pay for summer camp, which may limit participation. Families that elected to send their children to this camp may have also had a stronger pro-environmental mindset prior to camp. Finally, the researchers did not consider how previous environmental experiences and nature exposure might have influenced how participants experienced camp.

The researchers recommend that outdoor environmental learning experiences place greater emphasis on the connection between environment and society. They also recommend that the Sunship Earth camp should work to provide additional programming around those ecological concepts where knowledge was not demonstrably gained. Finally, they recommend that practitioners continue to refine the tools and methods they use to evaluate environmental learning. Study results indicate that outdoor environmental learning should be integrated into the lives of young people either through formal or informal educational settings. Practitioners should emphasize the value of outdoor learning spaces, provide opportunities for social interactions, and incorporate movement into activities to encourage deeper learning.

The Bottom Line

<p>This study found that 23 campers at a 6-day earth education camp in Nova Scotia, Canada, increased their environmental knowledge around certain concepts, felt deeper environmental concern, and engaged in more complex pro-environmental behaviors. Participants also broadened their conception of where learning can take place. The researchers recommend that educators stress the value of outdoor EL experiences and outdoor learning spaces, emphasize connections between nature and society, and provide opportunities for movement and social interactions.</p>

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