As lovers of the outdoors, most of us are inspired students of nature. This past October, I gained the opportunity to spend an entire weekend in the Adirondacks as part of a university project that included hiking, canoeing and collecting data for ongoing research projects.
On day one, half of our group was split up into 4 pairs of two to study beaver dams and I was part of the pair that traveled down a river that led to Rich Lake. Our team was assigned the task of collecting data in the form of pictures and identifying the number and condition of beaver dams and lodges.
With no formal trails to follow besides the river, we were fully immersed in nature; it was scary and exciting, all at the same time. There was no yellow-brick road! I had never been left so alone without a path to follow or teacher to guide us through the isolated and wild outdoors. The three hour hike was amazing, I was half expecting to see a bear around each river bend! There were so many things I saw and learned! We were trained and provided with a compass and map with coordinates to later identify beaver dam locations. We reached our final destination several miles later, the Adirondack Interpretive Center located on the shores of Rich Lake.
The next day, we also hiked Goodnow Mountain, except it was raining so hard that by the time we reached the summit, we could only see 20 feet in front of us! Soaking wet, I learned that hiking is fun even without a great view at the mountaintop, because it means we’ll just have to go back and see it again!
Maybe the most interesting thing I learned didn’t start outside, it started in the classroom. Thanks to the “Diversity of Life” class, students including myself, were able to identify different types of mushrooms and fungi and conks. We learned before our trip how to identify the different forms of lichen (crustose, foliose, and fructose). I never knew just how many types of mushrooms there were or how abundant they were until after learning details in class. We were then able to apply this knowledge outside the classroom. I knew what different types of mushrooms looked like in the lab, but actually finding a bunch of puffballs on a rotting tree and seeing them release their spores helped my understanding! Basically, being outside reinforced what I had learned in the classroom.
Learning effectively outside starts inside. Children dropped into the outdoors with no prior instruction will find difficulty in understanding what they see, but not if parents and teachers take the time to share details, ideas and plans, and then head outdoors. Trying to teach music without instruments and only sheet music is similar; the concept is not realized until play and practice with real instruments takes place. The same goes for the outdoors. Children can be given maps and charts, but unless they experience their meaning outside, they may not fully develop and understand the lesson intended.
Explain to them what you want them to learn, teach them the details, and remind them what they have studied, then turn them loose. They will grow a deep respect with more understanding for the outdoors. Enjoy every moment with our amazing nature outdoors!
By Kiley Voss
Student at the State University of New York College of Environmental Science & Forestry