red backed salamander

red backed salamander

Let Nature Teach


An excellent measure of how much children are learning is to count the number of times the teacher says “pay attention.” The fewer “pay attentions” the more learning. It would be a simple and effective way to evaluate teachers. In my own experience over 30 years as a science teacher, a 4th grade teacher and even as a swim instructor the teaching in which I said the fewest “pay attentions” was when I taught at an outdoor education center. That is because nature did the teaching. I was the assistant. In doing so I had the most impact and it was the most fun. This is how children learned the most. That is because of the support from the greatest teacher, nature. I didn’t have to talk much, all I had to do is let children learn. The place taught them. Trees, animals, flowers, rocks, water were all teachers. No words or lessons or websites or videos could teach as effectively.

On every hike I led I hoped for the moment when someone would scream “what is that?”  It could be any number of possibilities but my favorite was when someone had found a red eft. The bright red, lizard like body, covered in spots, was hard to miss. More shrieking would ensue, followed by



“Is it a lizard?”

“Is it poisonous?”  

Eventually one brave soul would ask “Can we touch it?”

I would carefully pick up the eft, cup it in my hands and wait for the hush of anticipation. I’d explain how this amphibian was the land stage in the life cycle of a red-spotted newt. This little guy had begun life in a nearby pond growing from an aquatic stage into a red eft. Which then crawled into the forest for a year or two before heading back to the pond where it would finish its metamorphosis into a newt. The story led to many questions.

“What do they eat?”

“How do they know where to go?”

“What do they do in the winter?”  

Not once would I have to say pay attention.

I'd gently put the eft in the hands of anyone who wanted, but only for a few seconds. That was all it took, a few seconds. It was at that moment kids from the suburbs came to some understanding that they do hold lives in their hands. They did not all go on to become environmentalists. But each them cared a little more for the world beyond humans. Holding the red eft taught them knowledge I could never explain with words.

What comes of this information? The children learned to care. A key to a more sustainable world goes through red efts and other “hold in your hands creatures.” They teach wonder with their faint touches of toes and the S swerves across the palm of a child’s hand. Efts are not the only route, there are countless wonders in the wild, but it takes direct contact with wild nature to learn stewardship and we need stewards of the land.

The children always hold red efts with the care of a surgeon's hand. After the last child I place the efts softly on the ground and back to the forest followed by a chorus of more questions. From then on the children paid attention. It started with searching for red efts, but with senses wide open they discovered other wonders as well. It might be a frog or a fungus with a yellow stalk. Perhaps a rock with a fossil that speaks of ancient times. These direct experiences lead to a bond that begins the connections needed for active stewardship. However, it would not even get started if not for being attentive. The more than human world found in the outdoors teaches children to be attentive.

The word attention comes from the word attendere which means “to stretch toward,” Attention is an action, something one must do, it is not a passive activity. Paying attention is a skill that requires practice and patience. The reward is wonder. This wonder allows for more “wow” and for questions both or which lead to true understanding of the place.  Having a developed sense of wonder means using all senses. It means having and enjoying questions. There is pleasure in the mystery that comes without knowing. There is the wonder for the surprise of figuring things out and happening upon an answer. There is joy in learning for oneself. This is the skill that comes from learning in wild nature.

For many people attentiveness to wild nature is a lost and forgotten skill, but it is still essential. Being a keen observer of the natural world was critical to our survival in the past. It is critical to our survival in the present. We need children (and adults) to pay attention to the natural world, to notice when new plants are growing and other plants are dying. To realize some birds are arriving earlier in the spring and others no longer sing, How many of them will notice when the water is different or the soil is changing?  Without paying attention to our home ground the subtle changes that indicate what is happening will go without notice. Environmental problems go unnoticed and when attention is finally paid, it may be too late.

The negative consequences of inattentiveness are severe. If we don’t pay attention to our relationships they end. If we don’t pay attention to our health, we die. If we don’t pay attention to our house, it falls apart. If we don’t pay attention to the earth it will not support us. As with dominoes in a line, being attentive starts a cascade of actions leading to both a more fascinating and sustainable world.  First, attention leads to wonder and curiosity. Combined they inspire a hunger for knowledge that leads to understanding. It is only with true understanding there can be effective action. Once in action the energy that is created, this ability to do work, works. It makes a difference. This action creates the web of knowledge and wonder all of which will teach children to be effective stewards of the earth.

Children are not learning to attentive to the more than human world. The problem is that they are not learning the knowledge of place that comes from spending time in their natural habitat. It is through time playing and exploring in the wild outdoors that children become native to the land in which they live. It is where the habit of attentiveness is developed. This comes from engaging in play that is unique to each child’s home ground. This connection to the land is what will lead children to love and protect their home ground, now and in the future. We care for what we love. By learning in nature the land becomes their security blanket. Playing on a computer does not connect one to a place. Playing sports does not. A sports field is a sports field in Arizona or New York. This kind of play could be done anywhere and anyplace. Play in the wild outdoors is interaction with the uniqueness of the place. Nature can only teach if children have a chance to be out of doors.

Research by Nancy M. Wells and Kristi S. Lekies at Cornell University found that “participation with “wild” nature before age 11 is a particularly potent pathway toward shaping both environmental attitudes and behaviors in adulthood. When children become truly engaged with the natural world at a young age, the experience is likely to stay with them in a powerful way-shaping their subsequent environmental path” Unstructured play was even more influential than environmental education programs with more formal lessons.

Being honest; children don’t really need adults for this. The natural habitat of a child is outdoors. They can do much of this on their own, by just having the time, place and freedom to play and explore in natural world. Unfortunately times have changed and this is not as simple as it once was.

Fear is stealing time from children. There is a fear that children are wasting time by playing and exploring wild nature instead of doing something “constructive” that will get them into the perfect college leading to the perfect job. This fear that children are not using their time productively leads parents to schedule just about all of a child’s time with sports, art and music lessons, after school activities and more. There is little time left to simply play in wild places. There is also fear of the other. Parents fear that their child will be injured, kidnapped, bitten by some disease-carrying tick or mosquito. While there are reasonable concerns, parents often pass on a distrust of the world that limits the opportunities for children to learn from nature. By focusing on worst-case events, parents take away the freedom of their children. There is also fear among parents that by letting children explore on their own they will be seen as bad parents. It is the overly involved parents that limit what children learn from the wild outdoors.

Another problem is that there are fewer places of wild nature where children can explore and play on their own that are not “kid proofed.” Children’s natural habitat is in the wild outdoors. These places can be woods, fields, streams, ponds, or abandoned lots. They need not be scenic wonders or national parks. The leftover land provides the outdoor classrooms children need. Too much development and too many fences leads to loss of place. Playing indoor does not work.

Children’s attention is also being hijacked. There are many culprits but mostly it is those small computers so many of them carry in their pockets, armed with ear buds and screens they steal wildness from right in front of a child’s eyes. Children used to walk upright with eyes facing the world. Now they walk head down, bent at the neck, hands in texting position, missing the wonder of being in the moment. Children spend unbelievable amounts of time in front of screens. The numbers seem impossible. With so little practice at the art of free play in nature, when children do have free time they immediately reach for a screen. I fear for what it is doing to the attention children have to the right now, the right- around- us world. That pocket full of endless information takes away wonder and learning from the place where a child lives.

Adults can help give the gift of nature by allowing children the opportunity to play and explore in the wild outdoors. In traditional cultures children had elders who worked with the outdoors to guide them. There are elders at school teaching them about computers and such. However, every child needs an elder that helps them to learn butterfly catching skills not just how to design a web page. Children need to know how to hold a frog just as much as how to hold a smartphone.  This gift will also bring joy and prevent the fear that comes when the only talk of the nature is the problems of pollution, extinction, climate change and more. Fear does not lead to effective action. Love does.

When I worked as a freelance environmental education consultant I offered a variety of workshops and activities for schools, all carefully based on state curriculum standards in order make the programs attractive to teachers and administrators. I wanted to get hired. My brochure carefully detailed each one. However, below  is the only workshop I really wanted to offer and the only one that is needed.

Let Nature Teach

Children will have the opportunity to explore and play in the wild outdoors. The discoveries and questions developed from the student’s exploration will be discussed. Primarily the students will spend their time playing and exploring in a safe and respectful manner.


Now that I am back teaching in a classroom the challenge is to apply what I have learned in a more structured setting. The necessity to be more creative is needed to get my students outdoors. I look at every lesson and ask myself, “Is there a way to teach this outside. Can I structure it in away where the children learn by their own exploration?” My school is fortunate to be located near several small nature preserves. The best lessons of the year are when we head out for a field trip. Over the years I have moved further away from planning the lessons. We just go. It may be only about an hour, but remember some time is better than no time. For the whole trip we explore. I have no plan other than to let them explore and ask questions. Occasionally, I will point out something they may not have noticed and share a fact that shows the wonder of the place. Other than that, as long as it is safe for them and respectful of the other living beings, I let them explore. It does not have to be a nature preserve. It could be a park, a clump of trees, a lawn, anywhere outdoors.  As Lowell Monke wrote in his essay, Unplugged Schools  “one of schooling’s most important tasks: to compensate for, rather than intensify, society’s excesses.” We need to make up for what society is not doing.

Teachers must let go of their need to be in total control of the learning process. It is better to allow the natural habitat of the child to be the teacher and guide. Taking on a role as an elder who  guides by showing instead of telling and testing will be more effective. Trust in the teachings of the wild and be the best educators by taking a step back so the children can take a step forward.


Unplugged Schools by Lowell Monke

Orion Magazine September/October 2007


Nature and the Life Course: Pathways from Childhood Nature Experiences to Adult Environmentalism

Nancy M. Wells and Kristi S. Lekies

Children, Youth and Environments 16(1), 2006