Updated: Apr 14
Riley Henegar is an Outdoor Educator whose mission is to help children connect to their natural world and apply what they’ve learned from nature to real world issues and life lessons. Riley has worked for two environmental education groups including Nature’s Classroom and Green Meadows Outdoor School. Through her work she has gained the confidence and skills to effectively teach students and aid in their discovery of vulnerability, compassion, and empathy through nature, and with one another. Riley joined the IEA last summer when she attended her first professional conference in San Juan, Puerto Rico presenting on Plastic Bag Use in Austin, Texas.
Now more than ever knowledge on environmental literacy is needed across the globe. Environmental education is a broad term used to describe not only the study of the environment by students in the classroom in first and secondary educational institutions, but also the basic understanding of the natural world around you in an outdoor setting. One does not have to be a scientist to realize our natural resources and the non-human species which reside in and around them are of grave importance to propelling a healthy world. My experience working in environmental education has allowed me to grow in my own understanding of how important it is for people, especially children, to make connections to the Earth and apply them to the real world. My students not only learned the important science behind how the world works, but learned how they themselves can make a positive impact on our world by leading with kindness and empathy. I began my environmental education journey in college, where I had several internships teaching elementary aged students environmental topics including: watersheds, water conservation, and pollution. I led interactive hikes where I educated students about native plants, the principles behind Leave No Trace, and encouraged students to keep in mind that everything on Earth is connected. At this point in my career as an outdoor educator I gained confidence in my abilities to hold the attention of a class by utilizing partner, large group, and individual activities. I learned I was capable of handling any situation that may arise, including getting lost on a trail and how moments of uncertainty can easily function as a teaching moment.
After university, I continued on the path of outdoor education by relocating to Connecticut and working for a non-profit environmental education program called Nature’s Classroom (NC). NC has 13 sites over New England, that service thousands of elementary and middle schools aged students each year. While all of these students are regulars in a science classroom, what sets NC apart is the hands-on, experiential learning opportunities it provides. If weather permits (we’re out in sun, rain, and snow), all classes are outdoors. The benefits outdoor learning has on students are numerous and invaluable to their academic and personal growth. I have seen students become leaders for their classmates, step outside of their comfort zones, and flourish in the forest and mountain terrains as if they were a part of the ecosystem. While this style of learning is considered informal, I have watched it transform uninterested students into scientists. Not only do they get to hear information but they can also explore, touch, and observe concepts beyond their desks; allowing real life experiences to be applied to their own world views. NC was a week long overnight experience, which offered a second important life lesson to students--sharing a common living space. The overnight aspect helped students work on their communication and compromising abilities. Fights over bunks, who gets to shower, and what cabin games to play, were all small feats that contributed to larger personal accomplishments.
One of the most impactful activities I conducted during my time at Nature’s Classroom started with asking students to find a stick or a leaf from the forest floor. We would gather in a circle with the newly found possessions and I would go through the three I’s of a scientist: 1. I notice… 2. I wonder… 3. It reminds me of…These three sentence starters helped them make astute and in depth observations about what kind of leaf or stick they had found. As this went on, students began to develop a connection to their item. At this point I would turn the conversation to appeal to their humanity and ask questions like “What do you like about it?” and “How does it make you feel?”. The final instruction was to break the sticks and rip the leaves. Long gripes and confused faces always accompanied this part. Human beings can make a connection to almost anything, it's what sets us apart from all other species. In a modernized world we spend less time outside in nature, viewing it as a destination rather than a life source. When connection to nature is lost, the result is a careless and even negligent attitude toward our environment. By teaching a curriculum fully aimed at reconnecting and fusing students’ relationships with nature, I learned the importance that outdoor learning has not only on a child's mind, but also their heart. Several instances occurred where students would go beyond the stick and leaf lesson and practice connection with all parts of nature at every chance they got. One student started calling everything he saw “brother”. I would hear him call out, “hey brother” and “sorry brother”. When I asked who he was talking to he innocently responded, “the plants” or “the bugs”.
Outdoor environmental education strengthens a child’s connection to Earth. Getting them outside, allowing them to explore and expand their minds and hearts, is an experience that will result in socially and environmentally conscious adults. In this career path I have learned every student is important, and every educator needs to ensure their students realize this. I have learned about my own teaching style, and how as an individual I can positively impact all of my students each week. Leaving them with a sense of confidence, a new skill, or fostered an interest. Moving forward in my career I know that what I’ve learned so far as an outdoor educator will continue to shape my teaching style and hopefully lead me to directing my own outdoor education program. I could go on about how I’ve watched students grow in their respect for the environment, their peers, themselves and as leaders while making lasting connections to the outdoors, but for the sake of time I will end with some of my favorite quotes from past students:
“This place gave me confidence”.
“I let the goats out of the pen. They wanted to be free”.
“Today I climbed a mountain. I made new friends up there”.
“I miss the salamander I found in the woods. I named him Lucas”.