Outdoor education is an area of pedagogy I have evaded for much of my career. I always found the concept of outdoor learning to be way outside of my comfort zone: ropes courses, orienteering, food cycle games, and getting close and personal with flora and fauna are things I preferred to leave to the experts. In my mind, I had done my due diligence by organizing trips to the board nature centre once a year or welcoming a science and nature expert to speak to the classes I taught. On nice days, I might take students outside to read or work on a dance project, pick up trash as part of an environmental initiative, or take a neighbourhood walk down the local bike paths.
My reluctance to taking outdoor education learning really seriously largely stemmed from the idea that I didn’t consider myself to be, well, “outdoorsy.” When I thought about outdoor educators, or outdoorsy people in general, I had always pictured someone who went camping, cottaging, white water rafting, canoeing, or doing big hiking trips in places like Algonquin Park.
The idea I had of an “outdoor” person was quite mistakenly based on things I had seen in the media: adventurers clad in flannel and boots that could pitch a camp in minutes or walk for miles with a canoe on their head. Funny enough, I had probably acquired lots of these ideas working in a hiking store as a teenager, endlessly looking at product catalogues and selling customers on the promise of very expensive hiking boots. All of these ideas, I realize now, were based on Western norms focused on upholding specific stereotypes about who belongs in the outdoors: typically white, male, and able-bodied.
It took me many years to realize that I am, indeed, an outdoorsy person. But to get there, I really needed to challenge my own assumptions of what it means to enjoy and engage with nature. And as an educator, I needed to get a better perspective on what it actually means to learn outdoors.
Here are some of the lessons I needed to learn to unleash my inner outdoor educator.
You Don’t Need to Love Camping to Be “Outdoorsy”
I truly believe that camping is one of the most wonderful ways to enjoy nature. Sleeping under the stars, setting up tents and fires, practicing self sufficiency, and braving the elements are exciting and rich experiences.
My personal preference, however, is to avoid camping. I don’t like setting up tents, the smell of fire on my hair and clothes, or cooking creative meals. I went camping with friends once, and ended up staying awake all night in my car wanting to go home.
I am perfectly happy enjoying the forest without sleeping in it. If I never learn how to pitch a tent, I’m OK with that too! I’ll stick with my provincial park day pass and go home at night.
The Outdoors Aren’t Only in Wilderness and Rural Areas
For the longest time, I believed that to be outdoors I needed to be somewhere rural, or in a large park of some sort. It came to me that such an understanding was limited and narrow. Indeed, organizations like Nature Canada have pointed out that urban outdoor spaces are often perceived to be inferior to wilderness landscapes – and nothing could be further from the truth!
The outdoors are everywhere, in city streets and alleys and even strip malls. Buildings, sidewalks, storefronts, school tarmacs, fields, and playgrounds are all part of outdoor life. Greenery grows through concrete cracks, wind blows through buildings, and ecosystems thrive in drain ponds and even soccer fields. Flocks of geese halt traffic and vegetable gardens can thrive on sunny balconies.
Key takeaway: we can connect with the outdoors from wherever we are!
People that Live in Cities Are not Nature Deficient
I’ve noticed that when the topic of outdoor conversations comes up around work, there tends to be an assumption that many students “lack access” or are “deprived” of outdoor time. Nature centres are positioned as a unique opportunity for kids, particularly in urban centres, to finally engage with outdoor living.
While I agree that there are wilderness or rural areas in Ontario that many urban residents do not access regularly due to economic, linguistic and cultural barriers, it doesn’t mean that there is something deficient or “missing” from their lives.
Everyone Has a Connection with Nature, But Connection Can Happen in Different Ways
Everyone has a connection with nature, but how we connect can vary along lines of preference, culture, or personal history. I recall being tasked to organize a “Canadian” fall activity for my visiting mother in law from Eastern Europe. Immediately, I suggested apple picking: what could be more Canadian and fall-festive than picking fresh fruit outside at a local farm?
Aghast, my partner dismissed my apple-picking plan immediately. “My mom is not going to enjoy doing manual labour on her vacation.” Apple picking, it turns out, is not a recreational activity in all places.
Nature and the way we experience it is deeply entwined with our cultural beliefs and assumptions. We don’t often see diversity in Canadian outdoor narratives, but visit a place like Algonquin Park or Point Pelee and it’s not hard to see that there are so many groups and individuals of different cultural backgrounds and ages enjoying the outdoors in their own way. Some prefer to enjoy the outdoors gathering with family through a big, elaborate picnic on the beach; others spend days camping in the backcountry. Whether it is running, walking, sitting, socializing, creating art, hiking, or simply visiting a lookout point, we all have different ways of appreciating nature and the outdoors.
Embracing Your Outdoor Self
If you have ever felt like me – that being an outdoor educator is a role best left for others – remember that, as teachers, we are all in a position to teach outside. Being outdoors helps us to live in the moment a bit more, and enjoy the feeling of fresh air and sunshine. By embracing the many ways people, including students and their families, can experience the outdoors in Canada, we can develop a more inclusive approach to outdoor learning.
Interested in reading more about inclusion in the outdoors in Ontario? Take a look at the report “Race and Nature in the City,” by Jacqueline L. Scott and Ambika Tenneti.