Making Connections with Nature: Bridging the Theory - Practice Gap in Outdoor and Environmental Education

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In this paper I describe my experience in attempting to assist tertiary students connect with the natural environment through outdoor and environmental education experiences. The paper addresses research conducted with students undertaking an outdoor and environmental education degree and focuses on the pedagogical methods employed in this context. I argue that outdoor and environmental education practitioners may benefit from moving away from a mode of teaching based upon 'generic' methods and look instead to a more local, specific and contextual form of education. By describing an outdoor and environmental education journey in a local, 'ordinary' place and students' experiences in unearthing the stories embedded in this place, I aim to provide some practical strategies to engage young people in a direct and meaningful way. The intention is to broaden the pedagogical possibilities related to facilitating experiences in natural environments and thus contribute to bridging the rhetoric/reality gap in outdoor education.

There are two spiritual dangers of not owning a farm. One is the danger of supposing that breakfast comes from the grocery, and the other that heat comes from the furnace (Leopold, 1987/1949, p. 6).

Aldo Leopold, an American wildlife biologist and conservationist, warned about the separation of humans from the natural world in the 1940s, a message that has been echoed many times since and is perhaps more pertinent today than ever. Living in an increasingly urbanised society, Australians have less opportunity to live on or from the land, to experience (or understand the consequences of) food/energy production or even just to 'be' in a natural environment. This disconnection is cleverly portrayed by cartoonist Michael Leunig who regularly uses the theme of alienation in his pictorial representations of humans as lacking a 'soulful' relationship with the non-human world (Mulligan & Hill, 2001, p. 275).

Environmental philosopher Val Plumwood (2003) extends the concept of disconnection by using the term 'hyper-separation' to describe a Western rationalist culture that treats nature as Other. She explains that the term encompasses more than humans feeling separate from nature but includes a perception that nature is inferior, of a "lower order, lacking any real continuity with the human" (p. 54). Other environmental philosophers suggest that modern, postindustrial society is developing an aversion to nature and this is depicted by a people who are willingly living in built environments, surrounding themselves almost completely with human artefacts (e.g., Livingston, 1994, in Russell, 1999; Midgley, 1989, in Russell, 1999). Many of these writers surmise that a culture that perpetuates this rift between humans and nature (physically, spiritually, intellectually) must take some responsibility for the so-called 'ecological crisis'.

Writers in the field of outdoor and/or environmental education have also described the disconnection of humans from the natural world and have called for a paradigm shift, one which reverses detachment of humans from the non-human world and develops relationships or connections with the natural world (e.g., Martin, 1993; Nettleton, 1993; Brookes, 1994; Cooper, 1996; Higgins, 1996/7; Ellis-Smith, 1999; Russell, 1999; Birrell, 2001; Wattchow, 2001; Curthoys & Cuthbertson, 2002; Cameron, 2003). While there is a shared belief that outdoor and environmental education can assist in countering the human/nature dualism, such influences cannot simply be presumed, and most would acknowledge the need for careful planning and facilitation of the nature experience. I argue in this paper that as practitioners in outdoor and environmental education, we need to move away from a mode of teaching based upon "universalist and decontextualized understandings of outdoor education" (Brookes, 2002, p. 405) and look instead to a more local, specific and contextual education. …


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