When we think of culturally responsive teaching, outdoor learning may not be the first area that comes to mind. How do you connect nature with culture and student identity? The answer is not straightforward. However, making nature relevant to students from culturally diverse communities is important, especially when we consider the importance of environmental stewardship and the historical underrepresentation of diverse communities in outdoor culture.

Spending time outdoors is one of the most high-impact, easy, and cost-efficient ways we can support the well being of all students. Outdoor play lowers anxiety, enables students to explore difficult emotions, experience awe and wonder, and disconnect from digital spaces.

It is important to keep in mind that culturally and linguistically diverse students may interpret and engage with the outdoors in ways that do not reflect what we see in dominant, Western representations of outdoor culture. One of the most interesting discrepancies I have noticed between typical Westernized representations of the outdoors and my own lived experiences is the ideal of the “empty wilderness”.


Many Canadians are fascinated with the idea of an empty, unexplored wilderness.

Many representations of the outdoors reflect an aesthetic of stillness and solitude: the empty dock, the barren mountainside, or the endless fields. Indeed, I have personally taken such photos, adjusting the camera so that I or the subject of my photos appear alone.

While I think this type of image taking is largely done to avoid having background distractions in the photo, I can’t help but connect it to the Canadian fascination with solitude in the outdoors, rooted in the romanticized concept of the explorer: Europeans who arrived in Canada and “discovered” a wealth of land and natural resources to exploit. Of course, we know that Turtle Island was far from being uninhabited – and we are just starting to see and hear Indigenous perspectives in our educational landscape – but I believe this reverence for emptied out natural spaces is tied to this piece of history.

Exploring Incongruent Experiences of the Outdoors

The dissonance between the way we idealize nature from a Western perspective and the ways different communities actually engage with nature becomes clear to me every spring when the trees start to blossom.

I’m very fortunate to live near High Park in Toronto, and I try to visit the park when its famous cherry blossoms are in full bloom. Droves of people across the city do as well, and as a result, the park is filled with crowds of people of all backgrounds taking photos and gazing into the beautiful pink canopy that forms in different areas throughout the park.

Nature is often filled with people and crowds – but we don’t often celebrate this when we think about how we experience the outdoors.

This year when I visited I noticed that the crowds were largely people of East, Southeast, and South Asian descent. I could hear so many different languages, but perhaps what was most amazing was the sound of joy and excitement at seeing the blossoms.

It occurred to me how amazing and wonderful it was to be in the masses of people enjoying something special in nature. I also wondered why we stay so fixated on this concept of nature as a lonely and empty place. I caught myself trying to capture photos of my family as though they were in an empty space, realizing how futile and pointless it was, and also questioning my own impulse to have a photo that did not reflect the environment I was actually in.

As wonderful as it is to see so many people outdoors enjoying the park, there always seems to be negative sentiments about the Cherry Blossom crowds. Perhaps unsurprisingly, complaints about traffic and the selfie-snapping crowds start to resound in online comments or conversations in the community. To be perfectly clear, I too have made some complaints as a resident who despises sitting in traffic while cars line up to get to the park. But I notice much darker sentiments of anger and irritation pervade comment threads about High Park and other popular places to visit, such as Niagara Falls or “cottage country” in the summer.

I remember reading a news post about Niagara Falls on social media a few years back and reading complaint after complaint in the comments about the high proportion of South Asian visitors who were picnicking instead of “supporting the local business.” Racism and xenophobia similarly echo in complaints about large, culturally and linguistically diverse groups that flock to beaches to enjoy the summer weather.

Why do so many people detest seeing others enjoy nature? Is it part of the collective fascination for an empty “wilderness”? Racism and xenophobia? A mix of both?

Connecting Back to Outdoor Learning

For me, outdoor time has always been strongly connected to being in large groups, being part of large potluck gatherings with family, sharing a cottage rental, or joining droves of tourists that gravitate toward an awe-inspiring sight like Cherry Blossoms. These are activities that, at least in my view, are rather broad in appeal to most people in Canada. I find it upsetting when certain groups are stigmatized for enjoying the outdoors in this way. And I can’t help but feel a tinge of shame and self-consciousness when I am part of a group of “too many” or “so many” Asians.

These feelings of being “othered” in outdoor spaces can be difficult to talk about, but I think it is important to name them because internalization of colonial values have such detrimental impacts on mental well-being, especially for those of us who grow up in Canada learning colonizer mythologies. As culturally responsive educators, we especially need to be mindful of when we may be sharing such narratives to students.

In part 2 of this blog, I will present a framework of cultural responsiveness we can use to start breaking away from harmful and inaccurate historical narratives.


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