Why I Teach Outside

Why I Teach Outside: Josh and his students study outdoors Courtesy & Copyright Steph Juth
Josh and his students study outdoors
Courtesy & Copyright Steph Juth
In February of this year, researchers published an integrative review of the literature on nature’s role as a catalyst for academic growth in children. They had this to say about their findings: “In academic contexts, nature-based instruction outperforms traditional instruction. The evidence here is particularly strong…” (Kuo, Barnes, and Jordan, 2019). For a long time, great thinkers such as renowned educator John Dewey and conservationist Aldo Leopold have recognized and professed the power of situational, hands-on learning—especially in the natural world, and especially among children. This sentiment is something we all share, I think—something bordering on instinct. Now, scientific research has caught up to a truth we all know in our bones.

This is a topic close to my heart; I’m a third grade teacher who got his start leading groups of kids into the backcountry, canoeing and backpacking the lake-littered northern latitudes of the mid-west. Adventure and education always seemed necessarily intertwined to me. “Education is not preparation for life,” said John Dewey; “education is life itself.” And life, I’ve always thought, is out there. The authors of the literature review agree, writing that “experiences with nature…promote children’s academic learning and seem to promote children’s development as persons” (Kuo et al., 2019). One of the key logs for this increase in learning and development is the increase in students’ motivation once they’ve left the walls and classrooms behind. According to the researchers’ report, “learning in and around nature is associated with intrinsic motivation, which, unlike extrinsic motivation, is crucial for student engagement and longevity of interest in learning” (Kuo et al., 2019). Even more “[e]ncouragingly, learning in nature may improve motivation most in those students who are least motivated in traditional classrooms” (Kuo et al., 2019).

I’ve been fortunate to have had the opportunity to work with students in the field. While out there, I’ve had that instinctual knowledge we all share reaffirmed while sitting next to a dammed-up beaver pond, watching third-graders reverse engineer the beaver dam out of rocks, sticks, silly putty, and freshly-chewed wood chips from a beaver log. I know my circumstances are not the norm, though—not yet, at least. So, how might teachers utilize the natural world when there’s no beaver dam on campus and they can’t get the funding or administrative support to go find one? It may be simpler than one thinks! There is an abundance of evidence that indicates students can reap the same benefits just from being outside while they learn. “In multiple studies,” the researchers point out, “the greener a school’s surroundings, the better its standardized test performance—even after accounting for poverty and other factors—and classrooms with green views yield similar findings” (Kuo et al., 2019). To supplement the views and the greenspaces, though, teachers can consult research-based resources like UC Berkley’s teaching guide, School Yard Ecology, and the National Science Teachers Association’s inspired 10-minute Field Trips.

If the increasingly robust academic research into nature’s role in student learning is any indication, though, I foresee a not-so-distant future replete with an even wider diversity of resources and opportunities for teachers and students to explore the natural world in pursuit of academic rigor. “It is time,” the authors of the integrative review write, “to bring nature and nature-based pedagogy into formal education—to expand existing, isolated efforts into increasingly mainstream practices” (Kuo et al., 2019). It seems incumbent upon us to trust the truth we feel in our bones.

I’m Josh Boling, and I’m Wild About Utah.

Credits:
Photos: Courtesy & Copyright Steph
Sound: Courtesy & Copyright
Text: Josh Boling, 2018

Sources & Additional Reading

Kuo, Barnes, Jordan, Frontiers in Psychology, Do Experiences With Nature Promote Learning? Converging Evidence of a Cause-and-Effect Relationship, 2019, https://www.frontiersin.org/articles/10.3389/fpsyg.2019.00305/full

Barrett, Katharine, Willard, Carolyn, SchoolYard Ecology, GEMS (Great Expections in Math & Science), Lawrence Hall of Science, University of California, Berkeley, http://lhsgems.org/GEMSschooleco.html

Russell, Helen Ross, Ten-Minute Field Trips: A Teachers’s Guide to Using the Schoolgrounds for Environmental Studies, National Science Teaching Association, 1998, https://www.nsta.org/store/product_detail.aspx?id=10.2505/9780873550987

A Short History of Logan River

Over fifteen thousand years ago, the glacially fed Logan River was flowing into Lake Bonneville which covered most of the NW quadrant of the state and completely filled Utah’s Cache Valley.

The river met the ancient Lake Bonneville some distance up Logan Canyon so it was much shorter. Animals that lived along the river included saber-toothed cats, woolly mammoths and giant ground sloths.

About ten thousand years later, after Lake Bonneville had disappeared, the Logan River meandered across the old lake bed and the Shoshone Native American tribe made Cache Valley their home.

Shoshone Women and Children. Photo taken in 1870, Unknown photographer. Courtesy USU Digital History Collections.
Shoshone Women and Children. Photo taken in 1870, Unknown photographer. Courtesy USU Digital History Collections.
Frank Howe, chairman of the Logan River Task Force, adjunct associate professor, and university liaison for Utah Division of Wildlife Resources said, “When people say ‘let’s return Cache Valley to how it was naturally’ they don’t realize the valley [had been] managed by the Shoshone for thousands of years before the settlers arrived.”

The Shoshone burned the valley frequently to drive the Bison and provide better forage for their horses. This impacted the vegetation across the valley and along the river. Instead of large stands of tall trees, the river was lined with shrubs which responded better to fire, hence the valley’s first name Willow Valley.

Water flowing in Right-hand Fork one of the tributaries of Logan River. Courtesy & Copyright Shauna Leavitt
Water flowing in Right-hand Fork one of the tributaries of Logan River. Courtesy & Copyright Shauna Leavitt
During this time the flow and movement of the Logan River was much different, in part because of the beaver families who built their homes and dams up and down the waterway. The dams created ponds whose waters seeped into the valley bottoms raising the water table and saturating the sponge. Joseph Wheaton, associate professor of the Department of Watershed Sciences in the Quinney College of Natural Resources explained, “the saturated ground increased resilience to drought, flood and fire.”

In the early 1800s trappers arrived in the valley.

Michel Bourdon was one of the earliest trappers to see Cache Valley around 1818. The river was, for a short time, named after him. A few years later, Ephraim Logan arrived in Cache Valley. He and many other trappers attended the Rocky Mountain Rendezvous along the Bourdon River in 1826. Shortly thereafter, Logan died during one of his outings and the area’s trappers decided to rename the river Logan, in his honor.

Trapping for the fur industry severely impacted the beaver population and the Logan River. The dam building beavers were almost trapped to extinction because of the European fashion demand. Luckily, fashion trends changed before beaver were extinct. However, the virtual elimination of beavers fundamentally changed the character of the Logan River to this day.

Man fly-fishing in Logan River, Logan Canyon, Utah, July 21, 1937. Courtesy of USU Digital History Collections.
Man fly-fishing in Logan River, Logan Canyon, Utah, July 21, 1937. Courtesy of USU Digital History Collections.
In the 1850s the first settlers arrived in Cache Valley. Their arrival had a large impact on Logan River. Within a year they began constructing the first canal for irrigation.

Logan’s Main Street about 1920, Courtesy of Darrin Smith
Logan’s Main Street about 1920, Courtesy of Darrin Smith
Around the turn of the 19th century it became apparent the grazing and timber need of the settlers had been hard on the Logan River and the surrounding landscape. Albert F. Potter surveying the Logan River watershed for President Theodore Roosevelt, reported the canyon had been overgrazed and its timber overcut. The timber, at the time, was used for railroad ties and to build Logan City.

Logan Canyon about 1910. Four waterways: the aquaduct which was used for power generation, the canal, a water way that ran behind the building which had been part of the old Hercules Power Plant, and the Logan River. Photographer H.G. Hutteballe, Courtesy of Darrin Smith Photo Collection
Logan Canyon about 1910. Four waterways: the aquaduct which was used for power generation, the canal, a water way that ran behind the building which had been part of the old Hercules Power Plant, and the Logan River. Photographer H.G. Hutteballe, Courtesy of Darrin Smith Photo Collection
As the valley’s population grew, so did the demand for Logan River water.

Color enhanced photo 1910 photo of Logan Canyon Courtesy Logan Library
Color enhanced photo 1910 photo of Logan Canyon
Courtesy Logan Library
Over the next few months, Wild About Utah will continue this series on the Logan River to tell the stories about its ecology, social value, and how humans have worked together to make it a community amenity not just a canal.

We hope you’ll join us as we learn more interesting facts about Logan River.

This is Shauna Leavitt and I’m wild about Utah.

Credits:
Photos: Courtesy & Copyright ©
Audio: Courtesy & Copyright © Friend Weller, Utah Public Radio
Text: Shauna Leavitt, USGS Utah Cooperative Fish and Wildlife Research Unit, Quinney College of Natural Resources, Utah State University
Co-Authored by: Frank Howe, chairman of the Logan River Task Force, adjunct associate professor, and university liaison for Utah Division of Wildlife Resources.

Sources & Additional Reading

Geologic Map of the Logan 7.5′ Quadrangle, Cache County, Utah, Utah Geological Survey, 1996, https://ugspub.nr.utah.gov/publications/misc_pubs/mp-96-1.pdf

Williams, Stewart J. Lake Bonneville: Geology of Southern Cache Valley, Utah, Geological Survey Professional Paper 257-C, US Department of the Interior, 1962, https://pubs.usgs.gov/pp/0257c/report.pdf

Biek, Bob; Willis, Grant; Ehler, Buck; Utah’s Glacial Geology, Utah Geological Survey, September 2010, https://geology.utah.gov/map-pub/survey-notes/utahs-glacial-geology/

Josh Explains Wild Neoteny

Josh Explains Wild Neoteny: Annual Wildflower Festival Cedar Breaks National Monument Courtesy National Park Service, Cedar Breaks National Monument
Annual Wildflower Festival
Cedar Breaks National Monument
Courtesy National Park Service, Cedar Breaks National Monument
“Hey, stop the truck!” my wife called from the passenger seat, her nose pressed against the window. I already knew what this was about; she was out the door before the dust had cleared the hood, kneeling in the grass. While she hovered over something newly found with purple petals, I stared out across the high, open meadow of blooming wildflowers, the urge to run surging into my feet. I turned at her exclamation several seconds later, half a football field of colored space between us now. Arms spread wide; grins from ear to ear. In a field of wildflowers, we were kids again.

Scientists call it neoteny, the retention of juvenile features in the adult of a species—basically, the harboring of a playful nature into adulthood. The research into the benefits of play, especially outdoor play, is becoming more replete by the day. In humans, play puts the right hemisphere of the brain into gear, that portion responsible for artistic and creative notions, imagination and insight, and holistic thought. The cerebellum and frontal lobes light up as well, increasing attunement to coordination, executive functioning, and contextual memory development. Neoteny, scientists say, is the key to a species’ adaptability and, therefore, its survival.

Alpine Pond Upper Flowers Cedar Breaks National Monument Courtesy National Park Service, Cedar Breaks National Monument
Alpine Pond Upper Flowers
Cedar Breaks National Monument Courtesy National Park Service, Cedar Breaks National Monument
Wild neoteny could be the term used to describe the human affinity to explore one’s natural surroundings, to wander off into the hills in search of something new and interesting, to learn the nuance of a place and to gain some intimacy with it—to call it home. We do that, I think, when we go on hikes into the wild hinterlands, catapult ourselves down the turbulent waters of our rivers, or climb the rock faces we stumble upon. It’s an adrenaline rush to be sure, a high on life as they say; but it’s also an act of survival—and of remaining human.

Robin Moore, a professor at North Carolina State University, says “the natural environment is the principle source of sensory stimulation….” “Sensory experiences,” he says, “link [our] exterior world with [our] interior, hidden, affective world.” The outdoor environment is a medium of human connection where, as Moore puts it, the “freedom to explore and play…through the senses…is essential for healthy development….” Dr. Stuart Brown, clinical researcher and founder of The National Institute for Play, behooves us in his Ted Talk on the subject to explore our individual histories of play. If you close your eyes and imagine yourself at play, where are you? The open water, a deep forest, a mountain peak, or maybe a field of wildflowers?

In his national bestseller, Last Child in the Woods, Richard Louv calls nature a “reset button.” It is the place where we are reminded of ourselves and our purpose. Australian musician Xavier Rudd sings, “Take a stroll to the nearest water’s edge/Remember your place.” It’s often proffered that in a time of industrial expectation and hyper-communication, we need the wild spaces more than ever. There’s some truth to that; but I think I’d go play there anyway, even if it wasn’t to escape the, quote-unquote, “workaday life.” I’m most human when I’m running through a field of blooming wildflowers.

I’m Josh Boling, and I’m Wild About Utah.

Credits:
Photos: Courtesy US National Park Service, Cedar Breaks National Monument
Text: Josh Boling, 2018

Sources & Additional Reading

Cedar Breaks, Plan Your Visit, National Park Service, https://www.nps.gov/cebr/planyourvisit/index.htm

Cedar Breaks National Monument, National Park Service, https://www.nps.gov/cebr/index.htm

Neoteny, Reference Terms, ScienceDaily, https://www.sciencedaily.com/terms/neoteny.htm

As a Child I Loved Nature

Chickadee Courtesy edbo23, photographer and Pixabay
Chickadee
Courtesy edbo23, photographer and Pixabay
As a child I loved nature. Not liked: loved.

I consumed it. I learned the names and types of animals especially, from all over the world. My love was ceaseless, carefree, and itself consuming.

There were phases of course, too. First it was bats, then dinosaurs but back before they had feathers, then penguins, dogs, spider monkeys, and sharks. With each new kind of animal I learned about, I was drawn in closer by what makes them special and sets them apart. I could imagine myself as any one of a million kinds of critter. I could play as if I were one, hunt or forage like one, build a den or nest like one. I was what I imagined myself to be and I loved it. My world was infinite.

Those days though are decades behind. For a long while now, I’ve thought about what happened to that child; what happened to that infinite world? Years of schooling and structure had pushed my attention into books, screens, and facts. The world did not leave me, I neglected that infinite world, and so it too became schooled and structured and sterile.

This realization of what had happened first hit me when I began student teaching kindergarten a few years ago. One day at recess a child asked me to play with them. I realized then that I couldn’t remember how to play and imagine and see the world as infinite still. I awoke from the dream of education and discovered that I had not learned but books, screens, and facts.

Since then, it’s been hard to relearn how to play and imagine. This relearning casts a shadow of struggle over you, especially as a teacher. It can drive you to try and find what obscures and what shines.

My search for reprieve from a knowable world has taken me all over this country: from coast to coast, and from northern desert to southern swamp. Just the other day though I finally found a true breadcrumb back to the infinite world: a black-capped chickadee.

Sitting in my springtime backyard, one came to my only, lone bird feeder that I got at the grocery store. As it sized up the plastic tube full of food, I began to do something that I hadn’t done for a very long while: I just watched it. It was not like how I watch ducks or deer or loose neighborhood turkeys, as food if only it came in range or the city ordinances were a bit more forgiving, but instead I watched it just to see what it did and who it was.

The small songbird flew from its perch and simply rummaged through my discount bird feed until it found a black sunflower seed and flew back to a higher branch. It worked the shell off the seed with diligence, determination, and intelligence. No schooling required. After eating the morsel within, it flew back for another and ate that one in the same wild manner. It then called out, perhaps to pay the good fortune forward, and flew off without giving the feeder another glance. The momentary abandonment of gluttony is the privilege of spring.

It felt strange to just watch a bird for a few minutes. It felt foreign. My mind kept asking me why I was watching such an unassuming creature and for why. There were books that need reading, screens that need seeing, and facts that need knowing. In the end though, it felt good to stick it to what organized my wild instincts and to just watch the chickadee like a true human being again.

I could in that moment imagine that I was that chickadee: wild, rebellious, and free. Never before had I thought of myself as a chickadee though, truth be told. If any bird, I would have before liked to be a Canada jay, or a raven, or a Swainson’s thrush. But after seeing that chickadee, and thinking on it, the chickadee seems the best of me now and the best of who I want to be. It can be humble, measured, and cooperative, or proud, excitable, and driven, depending on the needs of the season. It’s easily seen, easily unnoticed, and easily pleased.

Importantly, though it reminds me of that child with the infinite world. It reminds me why I loved nature. It gives me hope that I can again.

I’m Patrick Kelly and I’m Wild About Utah.
 
Credits:

Images: Courtesy and Copyright Stephen Peterson, Photographer
Audio: Contains audio Courtesy & Copyright Kevin Colver
Text:    Patrick Kelly, Director of Education, Stokes Nature Center, https://logannature.org
Included Links: Lyle Bingham, Webmaster, WildAboutUtah.org

Additional Reading

Kelly, Patrick, The Canyon, Wild About Utah, Jan 28, 2019, https://wildaboututah.org/the-canyon/