In a contemporary society in which multimedia skills and social networking savvy are highly valued, the ancient skills of animal tracking and making fire from sticks may seem obsolete. The staff of the Wilderness Awareness School near Duvall, Washington, however, makes a case for the continued relevancy of these ancient skills. In fact, they argue, developing awareness of the natural world builds essential life skills, and promotes the health of students and the environment alike.
In the school’s methodology, nature is the classroom and activities kids inherently find fun are the lessons. Adult mentors seek to engage kids’ natural curiosity. Anthropologist Jon Young, one of the school’s founders, studied how different indigenous cultures around the world, ranging from North America to Africa and Australia, teach their youth. He found a common pattern of mentoring and experiential learning in the outdoors, away from any classroom. They call this the “invisible school,” explained Ellen Haas, the school’s office manager and co-author of the curriculum guide.
John Richards, the author’s uncle and a mentor in southern California who trained with Young, accompanies children from an early age as they do what kids like to do – catch polliwogs and climb rocks, he said. He also helps the children identify hazards in nature. Richards recalled that after he taught the kids to identify poison oak, he no longer had to warn them of its presence – they started pointing it out to him.
Warren Moon, executive director of the Wilderness Awareness School, credits Richard Louv’s book, Last Child in the Woods, with capturing many parents’ attention in his argument that children’s lack of connection with the natural world in modern society has become a health issue. Louv argues that the rise in childhood obesity, depression, and attention deficit disorders could be remedied with more unstructured time in nature.
The Wilderness Awareness School provides opportunities for just that, and Moon noted that they are not just teaching names of birds and plants to memorize. “It’s this idea that nature isn’t a museum, it’s something that we have to engage, interact, and connect with experientially, to really gain the benefits that that connection with nature will provide.”
Nature survival skills, such as building a fire, create the need to learn about different species of trees – which burn the best, and which make a good bow drill, Moon explained. But rather than read the information in a book or hear it in a lecture, the students in the school get hands-on practice. “When you’re able to get your first fire without matches it’s a magical experience,” said Moon.
The school fosters Earth observation by developing students’ awareness through the five senses. Students listen to different bird calls, pay attention to tracks and other signs of wildlife, and identify plants that can be eaten or used medicinally.
Observation of the natural world can help scientists and researchers evaluate the integrity of the environment and protect vulnerable ecosystems, said Moon. He used the example posed by Rachel Carson in Silent Spring of hazardous chemicals building up in the ecosystem and causing the deaths of migrating birds. If people are unaware of those birds in the first place, no one would notice if they were gone, said Moon. “Awareness and observation is usually the first piece to understanding the health of the system.”
Haas was inspired by this idea of citizen Earth observation as well, from reading the work of another environmentalist, Al Gore. In his book, Earth in the Balance, Gore calls for students in classrooms all over the world to help monitor the health of local ecosystems by gathering data on local weather, rainfall, tree species, and soil health that can then be used by scientists to monitor the health of various habitats.
“We need to teach everybody to be an Earth observer,” Haas said, the passion evident in her voice. After 27 years of teaching literacy as a high school English teacher, she decided to shift her career to environmental literacy. In order to reach parents and educators who are unable to visit the Wilderness Awareness School directly, Haas helped write the curriculum guide, Coyote’s Guide to Connecting with Nature: For Kids of all Ages and their Mentors. On the school’s website it says of this guide, “Like the Coyote whose methods at first seem unorthodox or even foolish, in the end, it works better than anyone could dream.”
The authors wrestled with figuring out ways to be applicable in public schools, Haas said, but their method, which requires a low student to teacher ratio and time outdoors, would ultimately not work in classrooms of 30 kids. Nevertheless, she said, a lot of individual teachers and principals are interested in the methodology, and the Wilderness Awareness School has over 130 sister schools worldwide ranging from elementary to college level.
Besides survival and awareness skills, the school’s programs also teach universal life skills, according to Moon. He has seen this working in teenagers at the school as they are mentored in identifying their gifts and passions, and improving communication skills. “Mostly the public has a pretty poor perception of teenagers,” said Moon, but he sees a different picture. “When I see our teenagers together and they communicate with respect and look out for each other…. it’s really hopeful.”
Moon gives another example of a valuable life skill learned at the school: “We’re outside all the time, we deal with rain and snow and cold…” yet as the kids engage and have fun, “those distractions and discomforts become not a big deal. It’s a really huge transferable skill. Life as an adult is full of discomforts and distractions … and to be able to handle those things and deal with them, not let them distract you, is a very powerful skill for a young person to learn.”
The adult mentors also gain valuable lessons. Richards, an amateur naturalist who has long loved hiking in the woods, has newly discovered he has a knack for imparting his excitement and knowledge. “I have a gift so I’m giving it,” he said.