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KEEN Connects - Experiential Learning

By: Carlyn Saunders, KEEN Environmental Education Director

Can outdoor experiential learning opportunities keep out kids from becoming screen zombies this school year? The answer is simple; yes, it can.

Experiential learning is hardly a new concept. Aristotle even wrote that “we learn by doing”. This is true for children and adults alike. Inside the classroom or online, the learner often takes on a passive role. Experiential learning allows us to get our hands dirty and dive deep into topics.

It is easy to picture students passively listening to a lecture or staring at a computer learning biology, English, chemistry, or math. Now imagine learning about the life cycle of a salmon while wearing waders, standing knee deep in a river, holding a fish in your hands. Or perhaps calculating the growth time of a vegetable garden and its yield and then seeing it appear right before your eyes through the seasons. How about using the scientific method to understand photosynthesis by looking at how leaves breathe?

These types of activities are how we engage in learning outside of the traditional classroom or online setting. Numerous studies over many decades have proven that the benefits of children learning outside are abundant. When we allow children the freedom to explore their natural world, to discover how it works in real time, we are setting them up for success in life.

Outdoor education increases physical, mental, and social health. School performance, including test scores, attentiveness, and general attitude towards learning is increased. Access to nature decreases stress. After time spent learning outdoors, children develop heightened sense of self, independence, confidence, creativity, decision-making and problem-solving skills, empathy, motor skills, self-discipline, and initiative. Children learn to play, unhindered, where they learn in the most natural way. Engaging in environmental learning promotes a lifelong respect and understanding for the natural world and children develop an inherent desire to be good stewards of their natural places.

In truth, the entire experience of being outdoors in nature is immersive. The goal is to get children out into nature; giving them freedom of exploration and inspiring them to want to know more. It is completely unique from the traditional classroom experience. It cannot be replicated inside.

We are seven months into the pandemic and we have already begun to see the places in our lives that have benefited and suffered. Humans are social creatures and collectively we have struggled with our Stay-At-Home orders, quarantining, and social distancing. Our children have been kept indoors. Their schooling has been entirely online without the interaction of their teachers or peers. And while, as adults, we probably will not be permanently affected by these difficulties, children are still developing, sensitive to harsh changes and new restrictions. But they can also be resilient and accepting when encouraged to find new ways to see problems and are engaged in finding solutions. Which is exactly why getting kids outside now is more important than ever.

Scientific answers to COVID questions are fluid and changing every day. As those answers come in, each school district, city, county, state, and our nation are adapting to provide the safest options for every citizen. With Kittitas County schools starting online, parents, teachers, and students are wondering how they will manage. The Kittitas Environmental Education Network (KEEN) believes that one solution to the stressors of this moment is to help get children outside.

So, we designed a program to do just that.

KEEN’s Earth Explorers program is designed as day camps for kids K-8 to get outside, explore the natural world, and engage in active outdoor learning. Our sessions will run every quarter throughout the school year and each child enrolled will be in the same class with their peers for the entire quarter. Three hours, twice a week is a small respite from their busy electronic lives, but that time could make all the difference in their grades, their overall attitudes, and their happiness.

We are registering soon for Winter Quarter 2021. Other programs, including Discovery Lab and Washington Outdoor School also offer programs. If you do not have children of school age but you still would like to support our program goals, we are always accepting donations. Both can be found on our website


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