Outdoor learning was an educational trend that took off when the pandemic made the indoors unsafe. Now, many students and teachers have experienced the benefits of this way of learning. Will students ever want to go back inside? And should they? To find out, we had a conversation with two Antioch faculty, Ellen Doris and Liza Lowe, who specialize in place-based and nature-based education. They talk about the many benefits of outdoor education and share some great tips for those interested in creating safe and fun outdoor experiences for their students.
To learn more about the Inside Outside Network visit insideoutside.org.
Visit Antioch University’s website to learn more about the Nature-Based Education Program.
To learn more about Ellen Doris and Liza Lowe click here.
Recorded September 2, 2021 via Riverside.fm. Released September 8, 2021.
The Seed Field Podcast is produced by Antioch University.
The Seed Field Podcast’s host is Jasper Nighthawk, and its editor is Lauren Instenes. Special thanks for this episode goes to Karen Hamilton and Melinda Garland for their contributions.
Ellen Doris is an early childhood and elementary school teacher and administrator; museum and outdoor educator; professional development provider and consultant; author of Doing What Scientists Do: Children Learn to Investigate Their World, Life at the Top: Studies in a Tropical Forest Canopy, and the Real Kids/Real Science series. Her professional interests include place-based teaching and learning, descriptive inquiry, and the history of nature study and science education.
Liza Lowe teaches the Working with Families and Communities course in the NbEC Certificate program at Antioch New England. She earned her BA in Environmental Studies and Psychology from the College of St. Benedict and St. John’s University in Minnesota and received her teaching certificate and MEd in Early Childhood Education with an Environmental Education concentration from Antioch University New England. For over ten years Liza taught children of all ages through outdoor, environmental education in Maryland, Michigan, and Vermont before founding Wild Roots Nature School, a nature-based preschool/kindergarten in New Hampshire in 2013. In 2016 she was awarded the Environmental Educator of the Year award. Liza enjoys supporting teachers in the important work of engaging children with nature and outdoor learning.
[00:00:22] Jasper Nighthawk: This is The Seed Field Podcast, the show where Antiochians share their knowledge, tell their stories, and come together to win victories for humanity. I’m your host, Jasper Nighthawk. Today, we’re joined by two education reformers and innovators for a conversation about the benefits of taking learning outside. This outdoor learning movement has been growing for years now, but it’s seen particular growth during the pandemic.
There’s a lot of hope that this expansion will be lasting because spending time outside offers many benefits for children. To learn more about this, we’re joined by Ellen Doris. She serves as core faculty in the education department at Antioch, New England. Ellen is the author of among other books, Doing What Scientists Do: Children Learn to Investigate Their World. She’s a particular advocate for place-based teaching and learning. Welcome to The Seed Field Podcast, Ellen.
[00:01:18] Ellen Doris: Thank you, Jasper. It’s wonderful to be here.
[00:01:20] Jasper: We’re so happy to have you here. We’re also happy to have our other guest, Liza Lowe. Liza previously founded a nature-based preschool and today, she runs Inside-Outside, Antioch’s growing network of nature-based educators. A graduate of the masters of education program here at Antioch, New England, she too now teaches in that program. Welcome to The Seed Field Podcast, Liza.
[00:01:46] Liza Lowe: Thank you, Jasper. I’m glad to be here.
[00:01:48] Jasper: I think a useful place for us to start off this conversation would be to define some of these terms that I’ve used in the intro and that are really key to this conversation. Liza, I was hoping you could tell us what outdoor learning means.
[00:02:03] Liza: Oh, sure. Yes. I guess when I think of outdoor learning in its really simplest form, it’s being outside. That could be something as simple as unstructured play outside, it could be simply taking a lesson that you would do indoors to do it outside, it could be nature journaling outside. Actually just leaving the building to be outside.
[00:02:28] Jasper: It just means you’re outside and you’re learning. You’re engaging in a school-type activity or some other activity where you would be engaging with the teacher and learning things.
[00:02:42] Liza: Sure. I guess that another way to think of it too is that most of us are learning all of the time. You don’t even necessarily have to be with a teacher. If you’re outside and you’re taking in information stimulus, you’re learning. In that really simple way- and it can get way more complicated from there.
[00:03:02] Jasper: [chuckles] There’s another term, place-based education. Ellen, I was hoping that you would tell us what that means because I understand that’s slightly different than outside learning or outdoor learning.
[00:03:16] Ellen: Place-based education refers to approaches that immerse students in their local surroundings and encourage them to learn from the people and the places that are closest to them. The teaching and learning are really grounded in their communities, as well as in the natural and physical spaces that are close at hand. There’s a lot of overlap. Place-based education can involve outdoor learning. Place-based education isn’t really something new. Before the advent of school buildings and standardized curriculums, it was just the way everybody learned.
[00:03:58] Jasper: Place-based learning is you’re in a specific place and you’re learning using that place as what the curriculum is about. Could you give us an example of that, Ellen?
[00:04:07] Ellen: Here’s an example from my childhood. I did a project as a high school student where I became curious about what school was like for people in our community before my era. I visited seniors in the community and interviewed them about their childhoods and about what our public school system had been before I got there. Partly, I learned that they didn’t take the school bus, they rode the trolley. I also uncovered things in our community that were difficult. Some of the seniors were living in a residential center where the conditions really weren’t supportive of a healthy life. That was a shock to see, as a young person.
[00:04:54] Jasper: Wow. Was this a school assignment that you had been given, to go interview these elders?
[00:05:00] Ellen: In my high school, we actually got grant funds to start a local history course. The idea came from students. It was not part of our curriculum and it was the thing we really wanted to learn about our own community. It’s really a foundational experience for me as a teacher and learner.
[00:05:24] Jasper: Yes. That sounds like an experience as a high schooler that might lead you naturally into education as a field and into studying some of these ways of educating people that aren’t just sitting in a classroom with a blackboard and a textbook. I do want to get some of these stories of what brought each of you to outdoor and place-based education. Liza, what is your background? What should we understand to know why you’re passionate about and an activist for outdoor education?
[00:05:54] Liza: Yes, I think like Ellen, I had experiences as a child that probably I wasn’t like self-reflective at the time or self-aware enough to realize what was happening, but I just always felt at home outdoors and had some learning experiences in elementary school. Then again in high school where I was spending a lot of time outside, and that was where I thrived as a learner and then just chose those pathways for myself as I moved on to college and then graduate school. I think it really probably wasn’t until I had my own children that I really recognized- maybe as a student in Antioch’s Integrated Learning Program.
There was some of that learning happening but as a parent, I saw in my own young children, how they were at home outdoors and how they were just like happier, more even humans. It was a place where they could play and explore and run and swing and jump, and all of the things that there was just a whole bunch of freedom that you can’t find inside. As I saw that in them, then I got inspired to start Wild Roots, a nature-based program. Then through that program, saw in all of these children who I worked with, the benefits and how they also thrived being outside.
[00:07:16] Jasper: Yes. That’s a beautiful answer, that it- for you, some of the path came not just from being a kid yourself, but the reflection that happens when you’re a parent and you see what your kids are going through and you remember what it was like to be a kid yourself. I’m not a parent, but I am a proud uncle. I’ve had some of those experiences. I wanted to turn towards talking about outdoor learning as this movement. Liza, could you tell us a little bit about what the Inside-Outside network is?
[00:07:48] Liza: Sure. Inside-Outside started as a place for folks who had gone through Antioch’s master’s program and the nature-based certificate program. They wanted to stay connected once they had completed the program or taken a course or attended one of the conferences, an In Bloom conference or Inside-Outside conference. That was originally how the network got established and then really quickly from there, we realized that there were people beyond the Antioch community, and also folks who didn’t identify as early childhood educators or nature-based educators.
We’re using these terms. I’m glad that we started to define them because I think you can be doing nature-based education or place-based education and not actually know necessarily that you’re doing it. Anyway, all these other folks wanted in, they wanted to feel connected and have support and be learning from other like-minded people. The network grew from there and we opened it up to say, “Everyone’s welcome. This is what we’re about as nature-based education and place-based education.”
[00:08:55] Jasper: You opened up these- it’s a network where there are different chapters, different Inside-Outside chapters. Those people all get together usually, like inside a community. Is that right?
[00:09:06] Liza: Yes. I think maybe a way to think about it is like Inside-Outside is like the big tree and then there are all of these other branches. One of the branches is the website itself that has lots of resources on it. Another branch are the chapters, and there are a growing number of chapters and the idea of those is that they’re very local. Within a state, there can even be a few different chapters because it’s about those educators really locally coming together to support one another in a way that maybe is specific to their state or their school district. Again, in a way that you couldn’t nationally, because it’s like, specific to your region.
[00:09:43] Jasper: Yes. No, that makes a lot of sense. I think it’s great that Antioch is supporting this through hosting this network. I wanted to know like why outdoor education is a good idea on a deeper level. What are the benefits that you see that you see for children, of spending time outside, during their school days.
[00:10:03] Ellen: Some of the things Liza mentioned in thinking about her own childhood and her own children, there’s a sense of freedom many children feel, or calm when they’re outdoors. There’s a spaciousness that they don’t necessarily find in a classroom. For some children, they appreciate the physicality of it. Children are busy people, they want to move and do things. Sometimes the classroom can be limiting or confining in that way. Teachers and students feel free to take up more space outdoors or to do things in a bigger way. Those are a few things. Liza, want to add in?
[00:10:53] Liza: Well, I was just thinking too how children- how we start, we come into the world, in our bodies, right? Children are very much in their bodies and then as we get older, we come up into our head more. By the time you’re an adult, you forget how to climb a tree, or you’re not interested in swinging, and you’re just in your head. One of the things about being outdoors, regardless of why the reason that you’re out there, is you’re in your body, you’re not just sitting in a chair, you’re probably moving around in some way.
[00:11:24] Jasper: Yes, thank you for for bringing up these examples. I think of, in a past life, I was a poetry teacher who would go in to different elementary and high school classrooms and teach poetry lessons for a week. That was very fun and rewarding and also often poorly compensated. One of the most interesting things, especially in elementary classrooms was, there was a moment when suddenly all the kids had fidget spinners and many of them would be sitting on bouncy balls.
You’d stand in front of the classroom and it was like you saw- you were in front of an ocean of just undulating children. It was explained to me that a lot of kids just sitting still in a desk is by far not a good thing for them. I think that that goes especially for kids who are neurodivergent in some way, who maybe have ADHD, or on the autism spectrum. Do you see real benefits to outdoor learning for children who don’t have normative brains?
[00:12:27] Liza: 100%, one of the things that we know is that moving our bodies is a way for many people, not just children, but for many people to get more in their bodies so that their brain can focus. When we’re asking children– So for the example of as a poetry teacher, taking your students outside to do poetry writing assignment. If first there’s some kind of physical movement, some kind of physical activity that they engage in, then it allows their brain to then be able to sit and focus on the writing assignment. Sometimes we’re lost without the physical part of that.
[00:13:08] Jasper: I can totally see that. Your example of if you take your poetry class outside, I didn’t get to do that that much, but some of my very favorite classes that I think back to were classes where we did have the chance, we’d maybe had an hour and a half, and we would go down to the beach and look at the way that water was dripping down off the bluffs, and I’d ask kids to collect things from their environment and write a poem where each stanza described a different thing, or otherwise engage in that incredibly unexpected world that is out there.
To me, it sounds like that is one of these crossovers where outdoor learning, the simple act of taking a class outside, really does cross into place-based education where you’re engaging with what you find outside. Do you see the two going together, Ellen?
[00:14:03] Ellen: Yes, and I think I said earlier on, the terms have a lot in common, or our umbrella is over similar things. Part of what I’m hearing you both speak to is that there are things that we find in the outdoors that are worth our attention and interesting to reflect on and connect to and learn about. Sometimes indoors, we have to settle for abstractions of those things.
I’m imagining you there Jasper, on the beach with real things for students to absorb and respond to, and that’s what they then have to bring to poetry, or poetry as a way to help them think about those things in new ways, right? It’s dynamic, there’s this back and forth between them trying to express or capture what they’re noticing and that way of thinking, helping them see more about their surroundings.
[00:15:18] Jasper: I love that word, dynamic. I think that that really captures what I’m hearing from both of you. I think that there’s an irony in this, which is, I want to start talking about COVID, and the way that the pandemic has had this ironic effect of bringing forward this very dynamic and engaging style of learning. Even as for a lot of us, for myself, it’s meant that I’ve just been sitting inside my house for 18 months now in an incredibly undynamic location. Liza, could you tell us a little bit about how you’ve seen outdoor learning grow over over the last 18 months?
[00:15:57] Liza: Sure. Yes. One way that I know through the work through Inside-Outside is just there have been so many more teachers who are interested, who have come to nature-based education or outdoor learning, because really early on we knew that being outside, the transmission of COVID was a lot lower. It was a lesser concern, because of the air flow and whatever outdoors. Just taking your students outside was a safer place to be. There were a lot of teachers who jumped on board because of that.
However, once they started taking their students outside, I think it was pretty quick that they noticed the benefits. One of the things that we often talk about is children who don’t thrive as learners inside a typical classroom, go outside. All of a sudden, not only their teachers and the other adults in the school, but their peers also see them shine, and they can recognize how, “Oh, this child who I didn’t realize has this strength.” That I think has kept teachers in the game a little bit.
[00:17:09] Jasper: Hi, I’m going to cut away from the interview for a second here to let you know that The Seed Field Podcast is produced by Antioch University. Let’s make the world better together. Complete your bachelor’s or your master’s or study for a doctoral degree with us here at Antioch University. When you join Antioch, you will be joining a community with 160 years of commitment to social, environmental and economic justice. Win one for humanity, learn more at antioch.edu.
[00:17:54] Jasper: I know Antioch has been promoting these place-based learning, project-based learning, basically like the umbrella of integrated learning and outdoor learning for a long-time now. I’m curious, Ellen, if you see an increase in enthusiasm for these subjects among your students today, your students being future teachers.
[00:18:15] Ellen: Yes, future teachers and currently working teachers, because we serve both. I think Antioch has always attracted teachers who hope to work in place-based ways, who are oriented that way anyway. What I’ve seen is more people coming. Our nature-based early childhood programs, a real uptick in applications and inquiries this year. I think also the people who are coming feel really heartened rather than isolated in their work. They’re more aware that it’s appreciated, that it’s important, and they’re really eager to exercise leadership in their schools, their districts, their communities to help make it available to children. They’re trying to tool up in a really deliberate way and have program development in mind.
[00:19:32] Jasper: I love- that idea of tooling up is so cool. Do you see students, like future teachers who have this expertise in nature-based education? Do they have a bigger impact on their future schools sometimes than just taking their own classroom outside or using that expertise in their own classroom? Do you see them spreading that culture through schools?
[00:19:57] Ellen: Yes. They’ve been really important support people to colleagues, both near and far. We have graduates who have been able to assist others in their schools, in developing outdoor programming. Feeling reassured that they can do it safely, and also through Liza’s work in the Inside-Outside network and all of these wonderful webinars and other events that she’s arranged over the course of the year. Some of these folks have been able to support teachers in other regions.
[00:20:36] Liza: I think another thing too, Jasper, is those teachers who are doing this work in their school, just like when a teacher begins, oftentimes the experience is that they see a new life in their students. I think in a school building also that same kind of thing happens where a teacher starts taking students outside or doing place-based education. There’s new life in the teacher themselves and their colleagues see that and they get curious about it. Sometimes it spreads that way also.
[00:21:06] Jasper: I wrote an article last year for the Antioch alumni magazine and spoke to both of you, but it was about outdoor learning and outdoor classrooms in Brattleboro and in the Chesterfield school district. One of the things that I was interested in checking back with you guys and with other people is to hear that in the Chesterfield schools, that the outdoor classrooms have become so popular, that there are now Google Sheets with signups, and each classroom has to book, there are two hours out in this one classroom. It seems to speak to the incredible demand once other teachers realize the power of these techniques.
[00:21:44] Liza: Yes. I would agree. I think even within a school community, there can be ebb and flow, but ultimately I think teachers are happier, students are happier, and families are happier because they’re receiving students at the end of the day who are more positive about their learning experience.
[00:22:04] Ellen: Children are also spreading the word and spreading the work. We’ve talked to teachers who have a really well-developed outdoor program of one kind or another, but of course, the children grow up and move on to a new teacher and they start asking, “When will we be going out?” Teachers then turn to others who are knowledgeable for help. We’ve also seen young children advocate for the care of the outdoor spaces in their schoolyards. They’re the ones maybe who are using them the most. They sometimes get concerned that others aren’t being thoughtful enough about the spaces and they bring those concerns forward.
[00:22:53] Liza: I just want to point out too, Jasper, that we’re using the language a lot of children, but it’s not to limit it to young children. It can also happen in middle school and it can also happen in high school. When I think about Ellen’s experience as a high school student and there are other- I had experienced as a high school student. I think there’s like a level of independence that you can also offer your older students if you’re doing nature-based education or place-based education.
[00:23:22] Jasper: Yes. I want to go back to the idea, Ellen, that you brought up, which is something I hadn’t really thought of, of children advocating for and becoming advocates in bringing this to their own classrooms. I think there often is a stereotype that we have of kids as just wanting like the iPad or their video games or watching TV. I think those can certainly be easy and soothing pleasures, but to see like after exposure to outdoor learning that kids could become advocates for that, I think is both hopeful, and also maybe could recalibrate our sense of what it is that children actually want, ultimately.
Ellen, I wanted to ask you about the future of outdoor and place-based education. It obviously has had a big expansion during the COVID-19 pandemic, or really an acceleration of trends that were already underway. Do you think that once the pandemic ends, whenever that might be and whatever that might look like, do you think that most schools are just going to move classes back inside or does outdoor education have a bigger future than that?
[00:24:36] Ellen: Well, I guess I don’t have a crystal ball, but my answer is certainly I hope not. What I’m hearing from some teachers and administrators is that they don’t plan to go back to business as usual. Here’s a really simple story of that. One teacher that I spoke to recently working in a small school was able to help keep the school running in person through most of last year, and one practice that made it possible was eating lunch outdoors, which could have been done at any point in the school’s history, but somehow wasn’t, so because of this health necessity, they ate outdoors, through rain, through snow, through all kinds of things.
What they found was, it was far more delightful than difficult, and that the kids became really rugged. It felt great to them to be rugged, and competent, and they got very tuned into all kinds of seasonal changes and things in their surroundings. Lunch outdoors is part of the regular plan now.
[00:25:58] Jasper: That’s so cool, the idea that they’d become more rugged because of that. I think that there is a level to which you do need to acknowledge that weather is a thing that happens and prepare for these things. When I was researching for this, I enjoyed reading through Inside-Outside’s position statements, which you’ve put out three of these position statements, which roughly correspond to fall, winter, and spring and the seasons. Part of what I like is that there are bigger big-picture recommendations, which is what we’ve been talking about, about the larger benefits, but they’re also just the nuts and bolts of how do you keep kids warm if they’re outside for four hours?
What do you need to consider as far as clothing, or how are kids going to be able to write when they’re outside? Liza, I was hoping– We’re getting towards our end here but maybe we could go into these practicalities just a little bit. What are some of these things that you have to consider when you take a class outside that might never even cross your head when you’re staying in a classroom with an HVAC system?
[00:27:03] Liza: Right. I think the first thing that we often talk about as nature-based educators or outdoor educators is safety- and there’s safety indoors too. Definitely, we often teach about the risk-benefit analysis and like a risk versus a hazard. Just considering general safety when you’re outside, and weather, which we already spoke to a little bit. In a building, the building itself or the classroom itself is the boundary. When you take students outside, sometimes you have to create a boundary, even if it’s just visual or talking it through a little bit so everyone knows the parameters.
Then I think to really get nitty-gritty about some possible solutions, being outside in colder weather, there are mittens that you can get so and you can- people have even cut off the fingertips so that it’s easier to hold a writing utensil. If your right-handed, you could just cut off the necessary fingers of the mitten on this hand. Thinking of different unique strategies for keeping hands and bodies warm. Standing up and doing jumping jacks, or singing a song together, so that you can move your body to get heat, making tea outside, sharing a warm beverage together, something really simply warm.
Serving warm food, encouraging families to send warm food, different things like that, that are simpler tactics. Some people get really involved and buy outdoor heaters and hand warmers and things like that. It can get involved also. Then I think as you said, having appropriate gear to be outside in all weather. Oftentimes, that can’t be a thing that falls back on families. It’s something that a school needs to help or a classroom, a teacher needs to help families prepare or absorb the cost of getting rain gear, snow gear, whatever it is depending on where you live so that the students are appropriately dressed.
[00:29:05] Jasper: I like thinking through the specifics. It’s fun. I also appreciate the way that throughout your materials and you’re just talking, you emphasize that this is accessible and available without a tremendous investment. I think sometimes you can like think about going to REI, or opening a catalog and being like, “I’m going to go camping,” and suddenly it’s like $3,000 of equipment. I think the same thing must be possible for people thinking that you need all this equipment to go outside.
[00:29:37] Liza: I think we’re in a unique position right now too where there is, for a lot of schools, COVID funding that can be spent on outdoor gear. Sometimes there are grants that teachers can find or schools can apply to for grant funding to get the appropriate outdoor gear.
[00:29:54] Ellen: Schools will find different solutions. and not every degree of outdoorsiness will be possible every day or in every location. I think it’s really important for people to think about what’s possible, what supports health and learning, and take the steps that they can take.
[00:30:22] Jasper: I think it’s about time for us to start wrapping up this conversation. I want to close with the question that we ask all of our guests, although we tailor it a little bit to our specific conversation. I’d love to start with you, Ellen, is there some lesson or insight from outdoor education that our listeners, they could be school-aged youngsters or older folks who still have an inner child, but is there something from outdoor education that we can take into our lives and start applying right now?
[00:30:50] Ellen: Well, when we spend time outdoors, one of the things that we see is how intricately everything is connected and how we’re part of it all. I guess I’d like listeners to remember that they’re part of it all, and important, and that we each have work to do and things to offer, and joy to find, and even small moments outside can help us on our way.
[00:31:19] Jasper: Thank you. Liza, do you have, anything to add to that? Some lesson or insight from outdoor education that we could take into our lives, be we in formal school or not?
[00:31:31] Liza: Thank you, Jasper. I think I want to just suggest for each of us to go outside. I don’t want to oversimplify it. I think it’s important to find a space outside where you feel safe. Any safe spot that you can go to, go outside. I just extend that invitation to everyone listening. I’m sure your life will be better for it. [chuckles]
[00:31:57] Jasper: I’m sure too. Well, my life is better for having had the chance to talk with both of you. Thank you so much for coming on The Seed Field Podcast today.
[00:32:05] Liza: Thank you.
[00:32:06] Ellen: Thank you.
[00:32:14] Jasper: The Inside-Outside network that Liza runs has a website, insideoutside.org, where you can find their position statements, lists of resources, and contact information. We’re posting a link to this website in our show notes. We also have links there to the nature-based early childhood education programs at Antioch, New England, both at the certificate and master’s of education levels. We post these show notes on our website, theseedfield.org, where you’ll also find full episode transcripts, prior episodes, and more. The Seed Field Podcast is produced by Antioch University. Our editor is Lauren Instenes, a special thanks to Karen Hamilton and Melinda Garland.
[00:33:07] Jasper: Thank you for spending your time with us today. That’s it for this episode, we hope to see you next time. Don’t forget to plant a seed, sow a cause and win a victory for humanity. From Antioch University, this has been The Seed Field Podcast.
[00:33:43] [END OF AUDIO]