Best Practices for Field Days E-Tips for Environmental Educators
Welcome to this edition of the EE E-Tip for Field Days - the quarterly source for practical tips to raise the impact of field day programs. We want to hear your suggestions for improving this resource. Send your ideas to Nate Meyer.
EE E-TIP: Follow effective design principles to connect youth with nature at your field days.
A groundswell of grassroots leaders is joining in a national movement to re-connect children with nature. This movement is fueled by conclusions of researchers like Pergams and Zaradic, who coined the term videophilia to describe an increasing American tendency toward indoor, sedentary activity. In a seminal article on the topic, movement leader, Richard Louv, summarized: "Within the space of a few decades, the way children understand and experience their neighborhoods and the natural world has changed radically. Even as children and teenagers become more aware of global threats to the environment, their physical contact, their intimacy with nature, is fading."
In early-February, we will collaborate with partners to deliver a custom workshop in Northwest MN that focuses on using field days to connect youth with nature. In part, we will engage participants in discussion and a variety of hands-on activities to practice applying David Sobel's Childhood and Nature: Design Principles for Educators to improve their field day events. David Sobel is a scholar and author, who has spent years studying children's connections with their natural surroundings. In his seminal Childhood and Nature: Design Principles for Educators, he articulates a clear hypothesis for environmental education: "One transcendent experience in nature is worth a thousand nature facts." Sobel describes for teachers seven guiding principles for designing events and activities to create these transcendent experiences.
Try to follow Sobel's design principles when preparing your next field day or presentation:
Making it happen.
- Create a sense of adventure.
We have a tendency to reveal all of our secrets at field day events and presentations. We often start by sharing with youth all of our important points, mapping the activities and schedule for our event in detail. This cuts the sense of adventure, mystery, discovery. Give youth a puzzle to solve instead. Incorporate a sense of physical challenge into your events. Imagine an orientation to a water festival that begins, "We have a big mystery to solve today. And you have to keep your ears open and eyes peeled. Somewhere out there - along the trails and in your presentations - are ten gold ribbons. Each marks an important way that we can keep our lakes and rivers healthy. Let's see which class can find them all!"
- Call on fantasy and imagination.
It is easy to brush-off fantasy and imagination in our presentations and activities. You probably find it risky, uncomfortable to become story-teller or use a puppet voice. But, it is through fantasy and imagination that youth learn to empathize with their natural surroundings. So, tell stories or use puppets. Ask your participants to make up their own tales, become scientists, or pretend to be animals. During a presentation about trees, for example, you might ask participants to have a seat in the forest, close their eyes, breathe deeply and become rooted. Let them feel the sun and shade on their bodies. Let them touch the ground, and feel the damp soil against their fingers. Tell the story of their birth and growth as a tree in this forest patch. Alternately, you could tie all of your learning stations together with challenges leading from one station to the next: students walk like a spider (4 kids back to back, locked arms) between one station and rabbit between the next (but it should tie to the overall theme).
- Invite animal allies.
Bring live animals into your field day events. Tell stories about animals when they cannot be there. Live animals can be a bit messy, or pull participants' attention away from other activities. But, we offer some suggestions in our guidebook for managing animal interactions effectively. And youth naturally empathize with, and remember friendly animals. For example, Shep the conservation dog was for years a fixture at the Lake County, MN Natural Resources Field Day. Sixth graders loved petting Shep, and watching him sniff out a hidden package of contraband waterfowl. When we conducted an impact evaluation of this field day, past participants described over and over how much they enjoyed connecting with Shep.
- Make the most of maps and paths.
Event maps need not only be for adult teachers and volunteers. They need not only be an overhead visual of your event. Create a sensory map for youth, using key trail sights, smells or sounds to lead them from one presentation to another. Use the trip between presentations at your field days to keep young participants thinking, guessing, watching. Create signs that spark youth observation: "There is something special going on around the next bend. Can you see it?" Imagine a presentation on camouflage that involves participants observing, exploring, and mapping all of the great locations where a specific animal could blend into a presentation setting.
- Use and create special places.
Our choice of field day settings is often functional: Where can we hold the event at no cost? What space can accommodate our group size? Where are the busses willing to travel? However, it is worth hosting your field days at regionally significant nature settings - a park, historic site, etc. Make sure that young participants learn about and explore the unique features of a site - the hiding holes, big climbing boulders, stream banks for tossing rocks. In our impact study of the Lake County, MN Natural Resources Field Day, some participants described how much they enjoyed exploring the Split Rock Lighthouse as part of the event because it is right in their backyards, an important part of their local history. Likewise, youth participants enjoy the Duluth, MN River Quest, in part, because it all takes place on a boat in the Saint Louis River.
- Make and inhabit small worlds.
Use an Enviroscape. Ask participants to create small streams, wetlands, build a forest or a sustainable neighborhood. It is through playing thoughtfully in these small worlds that children grasp the bigger, abstract ways our world works.
- Involve youth in hunting and gathering.
Field day presentations pass so quickly. In the blink of an eye, youth groups arrive, get active, and then prepare to depart. So, it is easy to talk at them. It is natural to involve them in brief, trailside observation. But, it is worth pulling them off trail, into woods and wetlands, and into the dirt and water. Build a scavenger hunt into your events. Ask youth participants to 'capture' the different colored jelly beans dropped off-train in the duff at your presentation. There are hundreds of ways to engage participants in hunting for natural items during your field days. Even while on trail between stations, for example, you could ask younger children to hunt for items of different color or shape. Let them draw, snap pictures, or show a classmate without disturbing a site.
Over the course of many workshops, presentations, and field day evaluations, we have learned that your events are designed to work well for their identified purposes, presenters and youth involved. Change can be difficult insofar as it upsets this important balance. So, it may be tough to incorporate Sobel's design principles into your events. The following steps may help you make easier progress toward a field day that intentionally connects youth with nature:
- Make the case for connecting youth with nature through your events.
The Children and Nature Network website provides access to loads of research and resources to build an argument.
- Build connecting youth with nature into your event themes and objectives.
State clearly in promotional and educational material that you expect youth to get dirty, get wet, chase raindrops, find creepy-crawlies etc.
- Support your presenters in using Sobel's design principles.
Provide them with ideas for improving their activities. Let them know that you want them to get off of the trails and have a more sensory experience with their participants. Encourage them to take time to skip rock along the lake with youth, and dig for worms in the woods. Instructors have to know that they need to step back from on the "sage on the stage" and get into the experience with each group that comes through where they all learn together.
- Make time for your presenters to connect youth with nature.
It is nearly impossible in ten or fifteen minutes to get off the trail, skip rocks, or dig for worms. Structure your event with fewer, longer learning stations to give time for youth to get into the natural surroundings.
- Orient everyone toward the goal of connecting youth with nature.
Gather teachers and instructors together before your event to review Sobel's principles, how you have integrated them into your event, and why they are important to uphold.
Re-connecting youth with nature is an important national movement, and intentionally designed field days can play a role in fostering this connection. In his Childhood and Nature: Design Principles for Educators, David Sobel helps us look beneath our focus on content, benchmarks and lessons to consider how we can structure experiences that inspire our children to relate with nature. Following these principles when you design events can help youth experience nature in ways that are worth more than a thousand facts.
Best Practices for Field Days is a University of Minnesota Extension program. The information given in this publication is for educational purposes only. Reference to commercial products or trade names is made with the understanding that no discrimination is intended and no endorsement by the University of Minnesota Extension is implied.
For more information on using effective teaching methods for field day presentations, review the Use Experiential Teaching Methods section of the Best Practices for Field Days: A Program Planning Guidebook for Organizers, Presenters, Teachers and Volunteers - pages 61 to 73. Curriculum copies, workshop and other information are available online.
Use the Best Practices for Field Days Events Calendar to promote your field days and festivals, connect with presenters and volunteers. Learn more about the calendar and get started online.
Learn more about evaluating field days and water festivals with the Best Practices for Field Days Observation Assessment Tool.
To learn more about the Best Practices for Field Days, read our short article in the online Journal of Extension.
Louv, R. (2007). Leave no child inside. Orion Magazine, March/April, 57.
Meyer, N. (2007). EE E-TIP: Create plenty of signs, good maps, and orient all presenters, teachers, volunteers, and participants to the event and rotation of groups through presentations before beginning activities. Best Practices for Field Days EE E-Tip. Saint Paul: University of Minnesota Extension. Download
Pergams, O. R. W., & Zaradic, P. A. (2006). Is love of nature in the US becoming love of electronic media? 16-year downtrend in national park visits explained by watching movies, playing video games, internet use, and oil prices. Journal of Environmental Management 80, 387-393.
Sobel, D. (2008). Childhood and Nature: Design Principles for Educators. Portland, ME: Stenhouse Publishers.