Hands-on Nature Education
10:39 am
Thu August 22, 2013

Time in the outdoor classroom is irreplaceable

California Naturalist students take a field trip to Bodega Bay to learn about wildlife.
Credit UC Davis

  On a recent misty coastal morning, a group of 25 adults formed a circle on the beach in front of theUC 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. We were all paying close attention to our instructor from the 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.

Co-instructor Meghan Walla-Murphy shares tips to identify wildlife tracks.

  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 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 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.” 

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.The program encourages participants 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.