Building the Nature Habit: Maryland-based Education Programs Find Ways to Get Kids Outside

Running around and getting physical activity. Breathing in the fresh air. Listening to the birds as they sing. Sitting in the shade under a tree and looking out at the sun.

These activities are refreshing not just for us, but for our kids, too. And for many educators throughout Maryland, connecting kids with nature presents intriguing learning opportunities that balance and complement traditional learning.

“Taking kids to other places and making them have new experiences is life-changing,” says Len McGinnis, an athletic director, physical education teacher and farmer at the Friends Meeting School in Ijamsville. His school offers a gardening club in the spring and fall and regular PE sessions on the farm that McGinnis oversees.

The farm is a few blocks from the school— a wooded area with a stream that opens up to about 30 acres. McGinnis opened it five years ago when he started leasing the land from the school. He says he has always been a believer in outdoor education; the farm has just allowed him to implement it.

Children benefit because they learn to work in teams, he says. They also soak up knowledge a lot faster because they are applying it, as they work with pigs, chickens, ducks and turkeys, for example.

These outdoor sessions help them gain a deeper understanding of the real world outside of school. All of a sudden, they know where their food comes from, McGinnis says.

This kind of hands-on knowledge is the case not only for McGinnis but for many other schools throughout Maryland and nationwide that are introducing an outdoor component to their education model.

(Courtesy of Friends School)

Environmental author and journalist Sandi Schwartz has a list of “hundreds of schools” with similar programs to her kids’ private school in Florida—which uses science tools to have kids works with animals and in gardens outside. And she says more are popping up from private schools, from parents who are home-schooling their kids and even from public institutions.

Schwartz contributes to publications throughout the Mid-Atlantic region, including Frederick’s Child, MetroKids and Washington FAMILY. She runs the Ecohappiness Project, an online resource that connects mental health to nature, using positive psychology tools such as mindfulness, gratitude, awe, kindness and creativity.

It follows the idea that regardless of your preferred method of education or socioeconomic status, we can all recognize that nature is good. It’s good for the body; good for the soul; good for the mind. Schwartz even cites researchers who say, contrary to popular belief, it is
not a distraction. It can actually reduce ADHD symptoms and improve academic performance.

Those who run outdoor learning programs in Maryland report similar findings.

According to Kelly Ketzenberger, manager of the nature center for Frederick County Parks and Recreation, there are nine different ways to learn, and nature is one of them.

Kids will always need to figure out how to add and subtract. But learning their way through nature is perhaps just as important. And some kids just respond better to it. Especially the ones who are not as well-suited to sit in a classroom all day and do what they’re told.

“Why is a bird flying that way? You’re asking more questions because you’re seeing more things,” Ketzenberger says. “In nature kids can come out here and they don’t necessarily understand why there are five squirrels running around when there were 10 last year. But now you’re asking the question and you can begin to understand why things change.”

Kids do not just need to learn about outdoor life outdoors, according to McGinnis.

They can also learn history, math and other, more typical school subjects. McGinnis is able to show children how things were done in different historical periods, for example, to help them understand lessons from different classes. What did people eat in colonial times and how did they grow it? How about medieval times?

“It increases what they did in the classroom,” he says.

Ketzenberger oversees nature academy programs, outdoor adventure classes and other school-year and summer activities which are less about driving home the point of any lesson and more about just getting kids out. Ketzenberger believes it’s important for kids to know their way around nature. There’s a certain confidence that comes with that, she says.

So, at Frederick County parks, children as young as toddlers go out for supervised walks in the woods. And as they walk by trees, they point out moss and different types of trees and textures. If it’s muddy outside, staff members will ask the kids why. Then, they will go into why mud can be different colors and the difference between soil and dirt. (Dirt is what you track into your house. Soil is what you grow things from.)

Some days, though, it’s just about letting kids run around and get their hands dirty.

“They need to be able to do that,” Ketzenberger says. “It just feels good to go outside and know that you can take a long walk and know where you’re going.”

Despite their freedom to roam and discover, kids are never alone. At McGinnis’ farm, they are in groups of no more than 15 kids, McGinnis says.

And once children are outside, their teacher outlines clear guidelines and procedures so students know what’s expected of them. Kids must stay in groups, remain in the areas they’re allowed to walk around in and remain focused on the task at hand for the class that day. Then, at the end, they must come back in a timely manner to get cleaned up and prepared for their next class. Once guidelines and procedures are established, class pretty much runs itself, he says.

“You can do a lot of self-discovery type of learning,” he says. “Which is greater for higher-level thinking skills.”

In the end, Schwartz explains, the goal of any nature session is to “enhance the day.” And there are many opportunities to do that, even in subjects unrelated to nature. You could do a reading or math circle outside. You could go out back and do homework. You could even just go out and read some Shakespeare aloud.

“I call it building a nature habit. How can you build a nature habit?” she asks.