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  • Jocelyn Moore

Growing Tips for Cultivating Lifelong Learners

Leading garden-based programs requires more than a knowledge of gardening or environmental science. Being an outdoor educator requires a dynamic skill-set and is one of the most rewarding—and sometimes demanding–ways to serve our community. In fact, many professionals in the field refer to their job as “interpretation”. As interpreters of the environment, we seek to facilitate full engagement of our audience, often times using a variety of strategies and teaching pedagogies.

To best enhance our audience’s experience, we may first consider where they are coming from. What is their existing knowledge base and what do they aim to learn? Do students have any limitations for learning in the outdoors and how do we plan in advance to accommodate them? Is there a new set of expectations teachers may hold for outdoor lessons that vary from a classroom setting? What safety precautions must be addressed before we begin a program?

I’d love to use this post to share some best practices for outdoor educators/interpreters so that we can make the most of our time with students in the outdoors. These garden promises are a great place to start:

Hand-painted "Garden Promises" sign at an elementary school garden in New Orleans, Louisiana.

Best practices to enhance the learner's experience in an outdoor setting include...

...inviting students to sit in a circle to foster connection and cooperation; have plenty of room to move for a given activity; be encouraged to move, touch, see, smell and hear with experiential learning lessons; be dressed for the weather and in shoes and clothes that can get dirty; be limited from distractions; face away from the sun, and better yet sit in the shade when possible; and follow safety measures such as walking feet, proper use of tools, and awareness of anthills.


In the world of communications, we may consider a few things before we begin an outdoor lesson. If I am a new instructor, I will ask if they already have a class call. Otherwise, I will use a fun call and response, such as: “When I say ‘garden’ you say ‘club’: ‘garden—club!’”


SFA Gardens Nacogdoches Naturally afterschool outdoor program. Photo credit SFA Communications Intern Garrett Uhl.

Volume and movement expectations may differ; instead of requiring silence or an “indoor voice”, outdoor lessons may include wide-ranging sounds and movement (demonstrating high levels of engagement).  Interpreters may use varied voice volumes, sometimes loudly addressing a group or using a whisper voice to impart a special fact or instruction, and often use song and dance with younger age groups.

The power of experiential learning cannot be understated. It almost always sparks curiosity, wonderment, and enthusiasm—crucial components to learning and retention. By empowering students to use physical tools, learn real-world skills, work hard and challenge themselves to go beyond their comfort zone, they gain self-esteem as they proudly enjoy the fruits of their labor. As each garden season passes, garden teachers also feel proud of their harvest: both of delicious produce and also the cultivation of lifelong learners and problem solvers. As students collaborate with peers and adult mentors, our youngest generation prepares themselves for a future in which collaborative problem solving will be in high-demand.


As interpreters and teachers plan lessons, I highly recommend longtime outdoor educator Joseph Cornell's “Flow Learning” structure which he shares in his book Sharing Nature with Children. This book is a treasured resource that helps me plan the sequence of our lessons and find powerful activities that cater to each stage:

1. Stage One: Awaken Enthusiasm

2. Stage Two: Focus Attention

3. Stage Three: Offer Direct Experience

4. Stage Four: Share Inspiration


Along with this helpful recipe for curating impactful lessons, the power of experiential learning cannot be understated.  It almost always sparks curiosity, wonderment, and enthusiasm—crucial components to learning and retention. By empowering students to use physical tools, learn real-world skills, work hard and challenge themselves to go beyond their comfort zones, they also gain self-esteem and an appreciation of the environment.  Interestingly, research demonstrates a link between connectedness with nature and the ability to innovate (Leong, Fischer, McClure, 2014)—two very important human conditions that will help mitigate the growing environmental crisis of our times.


For more tips on how to fully engage outdoor learners and design interdisciplinary and STEAM-based (science, technology, engineering, arts, and mathematics) lessons for the outdoors, please contact Jocelyn Moore, moorejv@sfasu.edu, to join the next garden-based, hands-on, collaborative Nac Gardens Outdoor Education Training offered by SFA Gardens, Texas A&M AgriLife Extension, and TJR school garden teacher, Kerry Lemon.


For more information about ongoing, local environmental education efforts here in the Pineywoods, watch Jocelyn Moore's SFA Gardens lecture here:


References:


Cornell, J. B., & Beinhorn, G. (1990). Sharing nature with children. Exley. 


Leong, L. Y. C.Fischer, R., & McClure, J.. (2014). Are nature lovers more innovative? The relationship between connectedness with nature and cognitive styles. Journal of Environmental Psychology40, 57-63. doi: http://dx.doi.org/10.1016/j.jenvp.2014.03.007


Skibins, J. C., Powell, R. Baxter, & Stern, M. J.. (2012). Exploring empirical support for interpretation’s best practices. Journal of Interpretation Research17(1), 25 - 44. Retrieved from https://www.researchgate.net/profile/Robert_Powell9/publication/263806725_Linking_interpretation_best_practices_with_outcomes_A_review_of_literature/links/0a85e53c6b34929e8d000000.pdf

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