By David Cronenwett
The kids in the seat behind me were gawking at something outside as our bus cruised through the dramatic chasm of Wolf Creek canyon. I remember being startled by the fact that these fourth-grade boys bothered to look up from their electronic devices to be impressed by an eye-catching natural rock feature. My kid was there too, along with almost 30 of his classmates, squirming and eager to get to our destination one hundred miles to the south. This spring field trip to visit the Montana WILD education center in Helena is a much anticipated annual excursion at Choteau Elementary.
On that early April day, I was merely a chaperone, but for years I’ve led similar outings with the purpose of educating young people and others about the many ecological and cultural riches of our state. It was interesting then, to tag along as an “outsider” for a change, where I could simply enjoy the presentations, which included a tour of the education center as well as a short birding excursion afterwards.
It certainly is easy to become cynical about the state of our species and the natural world these days; there are an awful lot of us (about seven billion now) and we use nearly all resources in an unsustainable way across the globe. We’re jeopardizing life as we know it by fundamentally altering the planet’s chemistry and climate systems with our industrial activity. On top of it all, it seems we’re becoming increasingly ignorant about the ecosystems where we live. As society continues to urbanize and the distraction of digital technology penetrates every aspect of modern life, this trend is likely to continue.
However, all is not lost. Each time I’ve taken a group of folks outside, especially young people, the innate affection our kind has for nature quickly becomes apparent. During the birding walk at Montana WILD, the kids buzzed with excitement as each new species was found. With kids, an activity like birding instantly becomes competitive…which in this case, really isn’t a bad thing. Their irrepressible energy and focus to find the next interesting bird before their classmate was a sight to behold.
Research into attitudes about conservation often points to formative experiences in nature during our early years as the primary reason we act to protect it as adults. My own involvement working with many demographics in outdoor settings has convinced me of the same; if there is to be hope for people, natural landscapes and other living things in the future, it is critical to encourage active participation in nature among the young. Unfortunately, outdoor and natural history education of all kinds is often the first to go when budgets tighten, but at a tremendous, long-term cost to us and the natural world. I would add that while simply turning kids loose outside certainly has its place, encouraging the all-important “kinship bond” with nature requires a more intentional and focused approach.
A tendency of some educators is to use a classroom model for outdoor education; this method often relies on memorization, handouts, electronic gadgets and abstract concepts to describe natural systems. Unfortunately, it is a terrible way to learn about nature. Whether eight or 80 years old, a sterile, an uninspiring approach like this is bound to turn a person off. Another sure way to lose a student, possibly forever, is to force a lesson on them in bad weather or otherwise create a physically miserable experience. Effective conservation education outside should begin by learning the names of animals, plants and geographic features; this is the same way most human relationships begin, by learning another’s name. Interesting information about species, their natural history and culturally unique perspectives about them tend to cement lessons in the minds of students for a long time. Later, more complex ecological concepts can be introduced. Fish Wildlife and Park’s Montana WILD Center in Helena and our Montana Audubon Conservation Education Center in Billings are two examples of excellent programs to connect people with Montana’s rich natural heritage.
The most unforgettable learning in nature happens when lessons are immersive, hands-on and taught with genuine enthusiasm. It seems to be true that we only protect what we love and only love what we know. Because of this, it’s imperative for the future of wildlife and native habitats that we encourage diverse opportunities for learning and other experiences outside for people everywhere. And we should remember that each us with a bit of knowledge and passion for nature, be it birds or botany, can play a role in helping others understand and relate with the landscape around us. Perhaps it is even our responsibility to do so.