Environmental education builds connections to natural areas

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By Chandler Clayton
UW-Madison Nelson Institute student

In the golden age of technology where children can pass a day away staring into the screen of an iPad, how do we encourage nature play and why should we? I spent this past semester volunteering through the Nelson Institute Capstone Course gaining class credit and trying to tackle these important questions. In collaboration with Sherman Middle School, a small group of us, under the direction of our instructor, sought to expose local children to the environment around them. The lessons and memories from this experience will live with me forever.

The whole semester could be summed up by the difference in what I heard the first day and the last. On the first walk to Warner Park, I asked a sixth-grader, who was new to the club, about his experiences in nature. His response shocked me. He said, “I don’t get to play outside much. My mom thinks it’s scary outside, so she won’t let me go out and play unless I’m with my older cousins, who are barely ever over.” Now, understand that I grew up exploring the woods behind my house every chance I got. I could go an entire day from dawn to dusk playing outdoors, and I felt at home in those woods. So hearing his response shocked me, to say the least. On the last day of the club, I asked this student the same question and his response was the polar opposite of that first day. He replied, “I love running through the woods and climbing trees. I’m going to build my home in the forest someday.”

What changed during that semester? This student became comfortable being outside. It was only through pure exposure and education that this could happen. Many times during the semester, my peers and I taught the students about the ecosystem that became our playground and the creatures we shared it with. The more these children learned, the more they established a sense of responsibility for enjoying and taking care of this place. Therein lies the importance of environmental education.

As an old marketing lesson on heuristics tells us that people are less likely to give up something for which they have a sense of ownership. When these children describe the woods near their school as their own natural playground, it is creating a layer of protection for the park. Any group desiring to destroy or develop any part of the park will have to get the approval of the community and the outcries of these little land stewards will surely present a roadblock. The desire to protect natural areas is what environmental education strives to cultivate and that is exactly why it is worth caring about.

The Sherman Nature Explorers are an active MSCR Afterschool group of about 35 Sherman Middle School sixth, seventh and eighth-graders. They sign up to respect nature and each other and have fun every Wednesday afternoon — snow, rain or shine — exploring Warner Park and learning along the way with UW Nelson Institute students. This highly successful program, now in its seventh year, is coordinated by UW Nelson Institute Professor Mutlu Ozdogan and doctoral student Anke Keuser.