Time spent learning about nature in the outdoor classroom is irreplaceable

Aug 21, 2013

On a recent misty coastal morning, a group of 25 adults formed a circle on the beach in front of the UC Davis Bodega Bay Marine Lab. We sat cross-legged with our field journals in our laps, toes digging into the cold damp sand and jackets zipped up tight to keep out the salty breeze.

Our circle was comprised of young and old, men and women, educators and students, budding and seasoned naturalists alike. We were all paying close attention to our UC California Naturalist instructor from Occidental Arts & Ecology Center who was unraveling the mysteries of animal tracks and sketching them for our benefit in a large field journal. She was setting the stage for our morning activity: to explore the sand dunes for animal sign. As we took copious notes, she described the wide diversity of animals that might use the rocky intertidal areas, sandy beaches, lagoon mudflats, tidal saltmarshes, sand dunes, coastal bluffs, coastal scrub, and freshwater wetland communities that occur in the near vicinity. She demonstrated how we could discern which was a front or hind foot track, left or right side, why and how one might determine what the animal was doing in that location, and more. She left some questions unanswered, encouraging us to explore, observe, draw, and discuss what we found. She told us to share our observations and piece together the stories, so off we eagerly hiked to explore animal sign.

In less than an hour we found raccoon, deer, and myriad bird tracks, nibbled vegetation, an endangered red-legged frog, a recently deceased shorebird called a phalarope, and a large handful of shell-filled river otter scat. We saw seabirds, waterbirds, passerines, and raptors fly by. The entire class was elated when we re-convened in the parking lot to share our observations. 

As I chatted with California Naturalist Program Director Adina Merenlender, UC Cooperative Extension specialist in the Department of Environmental Science, Policy and Management at UC Berkeley, on the windy road back to Occidental, we came to the conclusion that not only had we immensely enjoyed a morning outside, recorded some amazing discoveries, and accomplished a site visit with a new partnering institution, we felt like we needed the time out in the nature.

We discussed the term “nature deficit disorder” coined by Richard Louv, author of Last Child in the Woods, which points to a modern issue of the broken bond between children and nature as a cause of the rise in childhood obesity, attention disorders and depression. Louv asserts that a “growing body of research links our mental, physical, and spiritual health directly to our association with nature — in positive ways . . . we can now assume that just as children need good nutrition and adequate sleep, they may very well need contact with nature.” 

Dr. Merenlender and I reaffirmed that time spent in nature as adults can also serve the dual purposes of educating and soothing maladies. Indeed, on this outing exploring the dunes we managed to learn about the local area while invigorating ourselves and alleviating the recent stress of rigorous professional and personal schedules!

Data from the first two years of UC California Naturalist Program evaluations support our theory that time in nature is productive and energizing for students.

When queried about which components of the course students found most fruitful, they overwhelmingly point to field trips. Following in the footsteps of California's great naturalists Annie Montague Alexander, Joseph Grinnell and John Muir, the UC California Naturalist Program encourages participants, through experiential and classroom learning, to be both scientists studying the minute details and observers of the whole ecosystem. California Naturalist field trips are typically comprised of exploring, observing, journaling and learning from trip leaders and fellow participants. Activities may include keying out unfamiliar species, mapping watersheds, collecting data for citizen science projects, and learning new technologies like iNaturalist.

California Naturalist Program staff and Directors firmly believe that formal classroom time paired with valuable time spent learning in nature allows this successful program to flourish and fosters a diverse community of naturalists that promote stewardship of California's natural resources.


By Brook Gamble
Author - Community Education Specialist 3 (NorCal)