Nature’s Classroom – Empowering Students through Nature-Centric Experiential Education

Alex Parrington, IB PYP Coordinator, shares how her PhD research explores ways to shift students away from the conventional classroom to embrace an experiential approach to knowledge and learning, inspired by nature and the outdoors.

Inspired by “Nature Pedagogy”, as well as the Reggio Emilia approach commonly used in early learning settings, including our ELC at St Leonard’s College, encompassing “the environment as the third educator”; Alex is currently completing PhD studies through Monash University, exploring the benefits and challenges of teaching children beyond traditional classroom settings. Her specific inquiry revolves around understanding the impact of learning in, with, and about nature. Alex’s main interest lies in identifying strategies to incorporate these successful approaches into primary school education.

We are at a moment in time where our world is undergoing rapid and constant change. Seating students in classrooms with rows of desks, originally designed to ready them for working at tables in rows during the industrial revolution no longer meets the demands of 21st Century learners. Contemporary students require innovative learning methods that can prepare them for the challenges of an increasingly volatile, uncertain, complex, and ambiguous (VUCA) future. In our digital age, where knowledge is readily available with just a click of a mouse, our students need more than mere facts.

The understanding and skills young people need to develop include a depth and breadth of knowledge along with the development of conceptual understandings which are transferable, enabling them to navigate various situations with ease and adaptability. These skills will equip them to become agile, critical thinkers, armed with the necessary tools and strategies to thrive in the unknown future that awaits them. Alex’s research delves into exploring ways to shift students away from the conventional classroom setup and embrace a more experiential approach to knowledge and learning.

Outdoor Learning

Alex explains that Outdoor Learning is not just about taking what you do in the classroom and doing it outside, for example doing your regular classwork out under a tree, but about using nature to inform and guide the teaching. For example, learning about the seasons by observing changes in the natural environment within the school. Taking temperature, humidity, wind and rainfall readings from within the school grounds. Monitoring the plants and animals such as birds and insects, along with their behaviour throughout the year. Drawing conclusions about what we notice from the data we collect.

One aspect of Alex’s study has been connecting to First Nations’ ways of knowing and connecting to Country. Continuing with the seasons example above, one of the ways to do this is by comparing the traditional European seasons to the Bunurong seasons. What do we notice about the observations we have made in the data we have collected? Does this data fit better with the traditional European seasons or Bunurong seasons? Why or why not? What does this mean for how we understand the weather and the seasons here at St Leonard’s College or in Bayside?

By teaching in, with and about nature, we are connecting students experientially, in a hands-on and practical way, with their local environment. The aim of Outdoor Learning is to connect students to nature by engaging with it. As Sir David Attenborough said, “No one will protect what they don’t care about; and no one will care about what they have never experienced”. Alex’s hope is, that by teaching children in this way, they will connect to land, to Country. They will begin to understand First Nations people’s ways of knowing and get to know the land and local environment better. They will develop conceptual and transferable understandings about nature, about Country and its importance to all of us. The dream is that all young people will come to understand, love and care for nature now and in the future.

Alex Parrington is the St Leonard’s College International Baccalaureate Primary Years Program Coordinator. 

Photo above features the opening of the Junior School Garden which was created by the Junior School Gardening Club.