Outdoor Activities

Knowing Outdoor Experience: A Field Guide for the Discovery of the Literatures and Landscapes of Home Knowing Outdoor Experience

Table of Contents

Introduction by Clayton T. Russell

Comments from Students

The Heart that Gives Life to All by Tim Palmer-pdf: TheHeartOfAmerica_TimPalmerChapter

The Value of Phenology by Ted Gostomski-pdf: TheValueOfPhenology

What Happens When We Journal
by Melody Bynum Pickle Ph.D.-pdf: JournalWhatHappensWhen

Autumn- Sigurd F. Olson Quote and Outdoor Activity Suggestions

Hey, What’s in Your Pack

Winter- Sigurd F. Olson Quote and Outdoor Activity Suggestions

Mapping Wildness
Take a Self Directed Nature Walk
Exploring and Appreciating Night

Spring- Sigurd F. Olson Quote and Outdoor Activity Suggestions

Knowing and Appreciating Trees
Appreciating Animals
Your Listening Point

Summer- Sigurd F. Olson Quote and Outdoor Activity Suggestions

Beaver Pond
Meeting our Neighbors


Sigurd Olson’s first High School teaching experience was in a small, rural town in northern Minnesota, named Nashwauk. Olson’s gravitation towards an outdoor pedagogy was not taught, rather it was instinctual. In chapter 10 from his book, Open Horizons, he describes a style of teaching long promoted by outdoor and environmental educators.

“During that first fall, I practically deserted the classroom, discovered anew the tremendous value of field observation no matter what the general coursework involved. Slides, dissections and books were vital, but only in reference to the living world; better to know a bird, a flower, or a rock in its natural setting than to rely solely on routine identification and description. This kind of teaching had as much to do with awareness and appreciation as the actual accumulation of knowledge. Observations on the ground, I decided, were just as important as laboratory experiments: in fact, they went hand in hand, and one without the other was meaningless.” (70)

This observation is perhaps even truer today as the sheer amount of information has grown and the speed at which new ideas replace older ones has increased. Our best efforts are aimed at helping students “learn to learn how to learn” and nurturing their sense of wonder, awe, awareness and appreciation for learning. And the best place for this to happen is in the real world in which we live.

In my teaching at Northland College I have found that even simple outdoor activities, like the ones in this guide, have reawakened in my students a childlike joy for learning and exploring in the out of doors. They have told me of a rekindled sense of awe and wonder for the natural world; a feeling some report having “lost” or “not felt for years.” Students have also reported feeling a greater appreciation for the role of play in teaching and learning and a greater interest in their own thinking and reflection about nature and their sense of commitment to the world in which they live. The exercises in this guide have created in my students both a deeper learning and a personal commitment to continue to provide quality outdoor experiences to their future students.

Aims of This Guide

Overall my intention is to get educators and people in general outdoors again! Give them an excuse to head out to the back 40, breathe fresh air and stretch out the limbs in pursuit of both structured and unstructured time in nature. The benefits for the educational endeavor, health and personal well being are well supported. The structure of these activities has 3 distinct purposes. First, to expose participants to inspired nature writing and especially the writings of Sigurd F. Olson. A fine overview of Olson’s life and work can be found on David Backes’ award winning web site. For a more in depth look at Olson you may wish to read the Olson Biography, A Wilderness Within also by David Backes. It is an inspired and revealing biography of one of America’s preeminent conservationists, nature writers and wilderness travelers.

Second, to get participants and teachers outside of the classroom walls with the purpose to explore, chronicle and more deeply experience the wider wilder world. And finally, my hope is that these activities will encourage participants to keep their own nature journals, record phenological events, sketch, draw, paint, take pictures, keep lists and write stories expressing what they have found and more importantly what it means to them and their future.

How It Works

Since my earliest days a s a naturalist, I have stuffed my daypack with books containing highlighted quotes that I felt might help the participants to better understand or think more broadly about nature and our obligations as one of the myriad of travelers on this planet. I believe the inspiration for this came from my love of reading and early environmental role models at Canyon Camp in the northwestern corner of Illinois. It was the early 70’s after all and the Ecology flag sewn to my uniform sleeve, a violation of uniform code to be sure, was an affirmation of this belief.

In graduate school I discovered Steve Simpson’s article, “Speaking for the Trees: The Use of Literature to Convey Outdoor Education Themes” in the Journal of Environmental Education.

Here was more proof for an educational technique that had been working for me for over 15 years. Simpson notes that”…using literature in outdoor education…illustrates perceptions the reader already realizes and presents new perceptions that the reader has, to the point, never considered.” (30) The potency of this statement was driven home to me as time and time again, people who had read Sigurd Olson would say, “He writes what I have felt”

So, using nature writing in conjunction with outdoor environmental activities serves to awaken for some and deepen for others, the nature-human relationship. Before concluding Simpson goes on to point out that outdoor educators should take this one step further by instructing participants in how to chart phenology or keep a nature or field journal or even make their own attempts at nature writing. Comparing the writings and field notes of our participants with those of regional and historic naturalists creates fertile grounds for discovery and discussion.

The Essays

In the opening essay, Tim Palmer describes a childhood that many of us have had to one degree or another, a life at play in the larger world of nature. As a youth it was his imagination and wonderings about the early history of the Ohio River that set him on a course towards searching out and learning about the great landscapes of this country. In this beautiful essay, originally penned as the Introduction to his book, The Heart of America, Palmer helps us to discover the many splendors of this land we call America. In doing so he helps us to see how far we have come from a meaningful relationship with nature and what exactly we might do to preserve the natural beauty we still possess.

Ted Gostomski speaks of his desire to use phenology as one way of making sense of the world. For him it has nurtured a lifetime of scientific interest and curiosity. Keeping track of phenology allows us to be a part of the great unfolding and enfolding drama of the seasons. For Gostomski and many of us, being attentive to our surroundings nurtures questions about and interest in nature. Who sings that way? What is that flower? What is that smell? What is our relationship to all these things and what would it be if some of them were to disappear? For many of us, phenology can be the beginning of a rich and unending bond with the wider wilder world and its many inhabitants.

After reading Melody Pickle’s fine piece, What Happens When We Journal” I began to consider my whole approach to teaching and the way I thought about teaching. Here are concrete insights into how students construct meaning, share experience, come to know their own mind and perhaps most importantly how they can become advocates and effective activists in shaping the larger world. Read and re-read this essay! You’ll be glad you did as you will be much better prepared to help individuals shape lives that matter.

The Author

Know this about me; I love the question, just about any question. I especially like Sigurd Olson’s question, what kind of world do you want? And this from Rachel Carson, What other course of action is open to us? Or “What are you doing” a favorite of Outward Bound founder Kurt Hahn. I also believe that the greatest resource shortage in the world today is lack of imagination.

I also believe we have largely failed to become attached to our place, our planet, and our communities. We are on a space walk without the tether and we have no idea how serious that situation will be in a very short time. Not only are we not attached, we have become outsiders, ignorant of the intimacies of place, of time, of our fellow humans and the more than human world. We have chosen to define ourselves too narrowly.

I believe it is important that we regain-reclaim-our connection to place and the realization that we matter. We can no longer surrender to the meaningless life of consumption, acquisition and television; we must strive to reconnect with nature, people and democratic community processes. We must have a daily requirement for striving and imagining. Imagine the changes that are possible and then try to imagine a world where hope and trying to make a difference do not exist. That latter part wasn’t so hard, scary, isn’t it?

What you do, from the smallest attempt matters. Dare to try! Dare to make a difference! Work to create the kind of world you want-the kind of world our children’s children might like to walk in. Working with young people of all ages in the out of doors makes for a full and richly imagined life. Try it; you could fall in love with much less!

Knowing Outdoor Experiences

Supportive Readings:
1.) Fleischner, Thomas L. “Revitalizing Natural History”. Wild Earth: Summer 1999 (p. 81-88).
2.) Murphy, Donald. “Our Need for Nature”. The Amicus Journal: Summer 1998 (p. 30-31).
3.) Sahn, Jennifer. “Knowledge That Binds: The Orion Society’s Environmental Education Approach”. The Orion Society: Wild Earth: Winter 1996/1997 (p. 26-28).
4.) About.com (2007). “Mental Maps: How We See The World”. http://geography.about.com/cs/culturalgeography/a/mentalmaps.htm?p=1.
5.) Stanfield, R. Brian. The Courage to Lead: Ch 4. “Self-conscious Reflection: Experiencing Your Experience” (p. 74-87).
6.) Elder, John. “Teaching at the Edge”. Orion Afield: Winter 1997-1998 (p. 42-43).
7.) Callicott, J. Baird. “Aldo Leopold on Education”. Journal of Environmental Education (p.34-41).
8.) Leopold, Aldo. (1944). In the River of the Mother of God: “Conservation: In Whole or in Port” (p. 310).
9.) Orr, David. (October 2000). “Loving Children: A Design Problem”. http://www.designshare.com/Research/Orr/Loving_Children.htm (June 27, 2006).
10.) Allen, Rick. “Green Schools: Thinking Outside the Schoolroom Box”. Education Update: volume 49, number 11, November 2007 (p. 1, 4-5).
11.) Boss, Judith A. (1999). “Outdoor Education and the Development of Civic Responsibility”. ERIC Digests. http://www.ed.gov/databases/ERIC_Digests/ed425051.html (December 2, 2002).
12.) Pergams, Oliver R.W. and Zaraic, Patricia A. (2008). “Evidence for a fundamental and pervasive shift away from nature-based recreation”. PNAS Early Edition. http://www.pnas.org/content/105/7/2295 (February 5, 2008).
13.) Knapp, Clifford E. and Woodhouse, Janice L. (2000). “Place-Based Curriculum and Instruction: Outdoor and Environmental Education Approaches”. ERIC Digest. http://www.ericfacility.net/ericdigests/ed448012.html (June 30, 2004).
14.) Deal, Debby and Sterling, Donna. “Kids Ask the Best Questions”. Educational Leadership: March 1997. (p. 61-63).
15.) Simpson, Steve. “Speaking for the Trees: The Use of Literature to Convey Outdoor Education Themes”. Journal of Environmental Education: volume 19100.3, Spring 1988. (p. 25-31).
16.) Smith, Gregory A., and Williams, Dilafruz R. Ecological Education in Action: On Weaving Education, Culture, and the Environment. Ch. 2: Krapfel, Paul. “Deepening Children’s Participation through Local Ecological Investigations”. (p. 47-64). State University of New York Press.