Molding mud pies, building tree forts, catching lightning bugs in Mason jars, exploring boggy fields and traversing rocky rivers. Spending time outdoors is a fundamental part of childhood.
According to the National Wildlife Federation, the average American boy or girl spends as few as 30 minutes in unstructured outdoor play each day, and more than seven hours each day in front of an electronic screen.
Clearly, it’s time for kids — or, more to the point, parents — to power down the iPad, turn off the TV and put away the laptop. It’s time to get back to basics in the form of outdoor education. But what does that entail?
B.J. Hausman, dean of Student Success at Florida State College at Jacksonville’s North Campus and Nassau Center and a trained facilitator for the college’s Outdoor Education Center, defines outdoor education as:
“Taking learning into the out-of-doors to create an environment unlike the daily surroundings. By doing so, individual’s comfort levels change so learning can take place in a new way.”
Hausman, who has been with FSCJ for more than 33 years, says that the benefits of outdoor education include the development of teamwork skills, tolerance of others and better communication.
Located on 10 acres in Jacksonville’s Glynlea area, Happy Acres Ranch – HAR, as it’s affectionately called — is a family-owned-and-operated entity that’s been offering preschool and summer camp since its inception in 1953.
The Ranch features horseback riding programs, ecology and nature lessons, leadership training and other outdoor activities such as archery, fishing, kayaking and basketball.
“Children need to be in nature. They cannot bounce off walls if there are none,” says Camp Director Katie Vatter. “We believe that children thrive outdoors. Our motto is, ‘Outdoor play, every day.’ Being outdoors gives the child freedom. They make their own play. They try things. They can scream out just because it’s fun. Outdoor education is something our schools lack.”
Kids who go to Happy Acres Ranch gain a range of nature-related knowledge, including animal care and safety, the difference between invasive and native plants, how to identify edible and poisonous plants, and fire safety.
“When we teach the kids about plants, we don’t look at books,” says Vatter, who’s a former HAR preschooler, camp kid, counselor and lifeguard herself. “We go into the woods and see how the plant affects others around it. We watch how an invasive species will choke out the native plants over the course of the summer. This all goes back to life. We teach self-sufficiency and independence.”
The St. Augustine Lighthouse & Museum is another Northeast Florida landmark that focuses its children’s programs on outdoor education. This year, the Lighthouse is offering five summer camp sessions centered around St. Augustine’s 450th anniversary.
This includes “Survivor: Florida 1565,” exploring local edible plants, hunting and fishing techniques, how to start a fire, and how to build forts and shelters. Kids participating in this session are taught a collection of early Spanish and Timucuan phrases.
Another Lighthouse program, “Living Off the Sea,” focuses on fishing methods and Menorcan net-making.
“There have been multiple studies completed on the benefits of getting children outdoors,” explains Jill Titcomb, Education and Programs Manager for the Lighthouse. “Studies have shown that students’ test scores increase, self-esteem and problem-solving skills increase, and students were shown to be more focused and motivated to learn.”
“Hands-on learning is not a new concept, but it has always been an excellent way for students to remember what they’ve learned better, which means that information will be stored for longer and ready to be recovered and applied to new situations,” says Titcomb. “Couple an outdoor classroom with hands-on, tactual learning and the benefits are increased.”
Happy Acres Ranch’s co-owner and former director, Mary Anne Adams, remembers one child in particular who benefited from outdoor education.
“I was struck by the change in an autistic camper we had several years ago,” she explains. “When Sara came to us, she was petrified by anything natural. Insects, especially bees, terrified her. We didn’t do anything magical those summers, just intentionally and gradually introduced her to the natural world.”
After Sara spent three summers as a camper, Adams saw a big change in Sara’s perception and reaction to the outdoors.
“Sara became a remarkable horsewoman and an avid enjoyer of nature, even laughing at the bees. She had amazing changes in the rest of her life as well, becoming able to be mainstreamed in school and maintain friendships for the first time.”
From learning about survival skills, like how to build a fire and what poisonous plants to avoid, to studying fishing techniques and team-building exercises, like building a shelter, outdoor education can have a lasting affect on a child’s self-confidence and coping mechanisms.
“Today’s children live in such an arranged and managed world,” says Adams. “They are removed from and consequently scared of the unpredictability of real nature. Just having the experience of pulling back the bark of a rotten stump and seeing the world of creatures inside changes them somehow.”
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