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The Gifted in the Wild: The benefits of nature-based exploration for gifted learners

By Kathleen Casper.

“Earth and sky, woods and fields, lakes and rivers, the mountain and the sea, are excellent schoolmasters, and teach some of us more than what we could learn from books.”

— John Lubbock

Gifted students are best served when education is crafted and accessed in individualized

ways that support the unique needs of each student (Garcia-Mendez et al., 2021). Yet, supporting gifted students in an indoor classroom can be difficult as gifted intensities, overexciteabilities, quirks and other characteristics and needs may create behavior challenges in a classroom (Davidson Academy, 2021). Many of those challenges are easier to manage when gifted students are able to move and engage with their surroundings to explore. As Piske et al. (2014) recommend, gifted students need to be “motivated, have freedom of speech to develop their creativity in a stimulating environment and present successful interpersonal relationships in their surroundings” (p. 804).

Curriculum designers and companies have so many phrases and labels for ways to engage learners within the classroom walls. Research supports many versions of these best practices for inside schools to keep things interesting to gifted students. There are many practices based on connecting students with the world around them, including “hands-on learning”, “inquiry-based learning”, “problem-based learning”, and so forth. There have been many debates and discussions about differentiating and making things accessible through Universal Design for Learning to help students access information in schools and classrooms, and there are trainings and reminders and lessons on how to set up the classroom for these targeted learning situations. Areas in classrooms are created with names such as “centers” or “project areas” or “circles” or “stations”. And our educational system and standards have divided the subjects of learning into contents such as science and math and language arts and physical education and then test them with standardized tests.

And yet, all of these names and claims and divisions and categories and tests can further divide and distance our students from the real topic of learning and being involved with their environment and the world (Blazar et al., 2017). Especially if students remain indoors (Norwood et al., 2021). So, how do we move these hands-on learning experiences beyond standardized gimmicks and fads, corporate labels and tests to help our students develop more than a respect for the learning that happens inside of the classroom and push them beyond those four walls? Researchers say that the best way to do this, especially for gifted students, is to take them outside (Demircelik et. al, 2022).

Go outside! The benefits of nature learning

The idea of going outside for learning is often tied closely to opportunities for young children in preschools and primary grades. But such limitations in our traditional education pedagogy further distance us from seeing the realm of possibilities. Nature-based learning can be as simple or as complex as needed for any age student, and that range of access and the organic scaffolding that comes from interacting with the world around us are just what our gifted kids and all kids need (Bauld, 2021).

Cindy West, a blogger at Our Journey Westward explained this connection between gifted needs for novelty, saying, “By embracing nature study…, gifted kids can follow every rabbit trail they happen upon, both metaphorically and literally. There will never be too few animals to observe, not enough plants to study.”

To even have the capacity to promote more outdoor learning, the United States’ public K-12 education system must be much more flexible. Teachers may understand that state or local standards can be met in integrated and creative ways, but often the bureaucracy is too stuck to allow the process or the products to be exhibited diversely. In the outdoor environment, students do not encounter lessons in merely one subject area at a time, nor will they want to slow down enough to take summative assessments along the way… at least in the way classroom teachers traditionally view assessments. In reality, students encountering learning in the wild will be constantly re-evaluating and adjusting their concepts and approaches much more organically than any pencil and paper test could ever measure.

Students need to be encouraged to think critically and creatively and to problem-solve without worrying about what they are “supposed to do.” They need new tools, including a new outlook on what learning really means. But, being free to define learning for themselves must come from feeling safe to explore and supported by teachers who are facilitators, rather than leaders; from role models who value thinking beyond a list of state learning standards, and who are not offended when the students don’t stay in a straight line or listen to Power Point slideshows. Being outdoors offers an endless supply of distractions that compete with any formalized presentation.

The traits that make gifted students difficult to teach in an indoor setting are beneficial in the outdoor setting. As Emma Shaw stated, “Outside, quiet children start to talk more and children who find it hard to be constrained begin to relax. Children need to be outside long enough to feel at home there.” Curiosity, high-energy, eagerness to explore, and the ability to see connections beyond the traditional curriculum allow gifted students to take learning to the next level while exploring in the never-ending science classroom of the outdoors.

Unfortunately, as researchers Malone & Waite (2016) point out, there is a “trend to keep children indoors occurs despite research indicating that by teachers and parents discouraging children to engage in learning activities outdoors” (p. 7). Change does not often happen in education unless someone in a higher administration office believes it is important enough. Malone & Waite (2016) encourage the implementation of policies to incorporate the research findings and make them “enshrined in policy and inspection frameworks” (p. 30).

Just what the doctor ordered!

The many positive impacts of outdoor education are not easy to measure, as they exponentially effect each person differently and in multiple ways even down to the chemical level. Dettweiler et al. (2017) from the Technical University of Munich and Johannes Gutenberg University identified the three main ingredients according to self-determination theory that are the basic psychological needs for motivating learning: competence, autonomy, and relatedness (or connection). They found that all of those areas were improved by exposure to outdoor education.

Dettweiler et al. (2017) also found that students who were outside in nature had more natural patterns of measured daily levels of the stress hormone cortisol than those who were learning indoors. Corbett, et al, (2014) recognized a spectrum of responsivity to stress. Ruttle, et al., (2011) found that some individuals have abnormally high levels of cortisol when faced with a stress, while others have abnormally low levels.

Although the jury is still out on whether gifted children have more stress than others, researchers find that they process stimulation differently than others. Their higher levels of sensory sensitivity, their tendency towards perfectionism, underachievement issues, their ability to think deeply about issues that they cannot control, and their asynchronous development make them uniquely affected by stress (Alexopoulou et al., 2020). As Alexopoulou et al. (2020) mention, some gifted children have higher resiliency than others, but studies show that cortisol levels can affect cognitive functioning as well as balance (Cay et al., 2018) and behavior.

According to Bergland (2015), “Optimal levels of cortisol may be linked to eustress. In certain circumstances, the right amount of cortisol fuels your passion and gives you the oomph needed to seize the day. It appears that low levels of cortisol could be a biomarker for depression, apathy, or hopelessness about someone's possible future.” With a rise in anxiety across all children in the United States in the last few years (Davidson Institute, 2022), gifted children are among many whom benefit from activities that regulate their natural patterns of cortisol and outdoor experiences are just what the doctor ordered.

Regardless of stress level, gifted students struggle with sitting still and need novel learning experiences and the ability to dive deeply into their explorations. Peconio et al. (2020), state that, “often, gifted children rely on their extreme capacity for immediate comprehension and do not apply themselves in consolidating methods and strategies, sometimes developing difficulties in selfregulation,” which can result in feelings of anger and frustration that interfere with development. Peconio et al. (2020) also mention characteristics of gifted children that impact their learning in a traditional classroom, including “their rapid learning ability,” whereas “these students learn very easily and find the school curriculum boring” (p. 4), and asynchrony due to their “cognitive abilities that make them more similar, in terms of performance, to older individuals” (p. 2).

Taking these students outside opens the world to them and lets them use their energy and quick comprehension skills to ask questions about the world around them and to investigate their theories immediately and with direct impact on their senses. There is very little excuse for boredom when they get to set their own parameters for their exploration.

An endless supply of high-level learning

Outdoor education and adventure learning offer students many opportunities for higher-level thinking and development of ideas. As Meyer (2003) noted, the experiences participants have outdoors can be translated to academic and professional growth. For example, in the outdoors, “the introduction of more complex situations, encompasses broader environmental factors including the effects of participants’ decisions and actions, and better supports stages of experiential learning such as active experimentation” (Saunders, 1997 as cited in Meyer, 2003). Meyer (2003) encourages extending the learning in outdoor experiences by using self-reflection and “ongoing, real-time attention” while the participants are in the middle of the experiences. Using this reflection time to assess their own performance and the performance of the group allows transfer of knowledge so participants can use what they learn from each experience in other areas of their lives (Meyer, 2003).

Gruenewald (2003) believes that deep learning experiences outdoors can come from “critical place-based” education, as defined as a mix between critical pedagogy and place-based education. He states, “place-based pedagogies are needed so that the education of citizens might have some direct bearing on the wellbeing of the social and ecological places people actually inhabit. Critical pedagogies are needed to challenge the assumptions, practices, and outcomes taken for granted in dominant culture and in conventional education” (p. 3). Gruenewald’s (2003) discussion challenges all learners (teachers and students both), to explore beyond the traditional structures of learning and to question how the “place” of participants in history and in the world around us impact their outlook and reactions to situations. In order to connect the world of learning to the actual, physical world, students must be out in those places and not just within the walls of a school (the word “school” being used as an actual setting and metaphorically relating to the learning paradigms of our era.)

Gifted students benefit immensely by connections between the real world and the “what-ifs” they learn about in literature and classroom discussions. By taking them outside and letting them experience the world with their own senses and reflections, we allow growth much beyond what they otherwise could imagine. As Gruenewald (2003) states, “the heavy emphasis in educational research on school and classroom practices reinforces institutional practices that keep teachers and students isolated from places outside schools.” Smith (2002 as cited by Gruenewald, 2003) states “The primary value of place-base education lies in the way that it serves to strengthen children's [and adults'] connections to others and to the regions in which they live" (pp. 593-594). Gifted students yearn for the deeper connections, and learning in the natural environment leads directly to greater understanding of the people, places, and things they are reading about.

Let the wild rumpus start!

There are many ways to achieve the goals of getting kids outside. Karyn, a blogger at Teach Beside Me: Educate Creatively summarized some ideas for how to easily start getting kids into nature:

"Some ideas for a nature school: Find great local hikes, talk to park rangers for tips and help (or even to guest speak), do nature art, learn to draw nature, survival skills, learn local habitats, wildlife conservation, and more" (Karyn, 2013).

In order to be most prepared, Karyn (2013) suggests having students build a nature kit, consisting of items that will help them learn and study. She lists things such as a magnifying glass, a notebook and pencil, a bag or jar to collect specimens, binoculars, and a trash bag to collect garbage (Karyn, 2013).

Rebecca, a blogger at EdBlog suggests starting a nature club to at least take a step towards working outside with students. Rebecca (2017), said, "Getting out and about in nature might seem impossible... So start small."

Outdoor experiences are good for everyone including the adults. Delaney (2020) starts her outdoor lessons with her college students with what she calls a "grounding experience." She said, "When I teach at the beach, we dip our toes in the ocean; when I teach on the grass, we take our shoes off," and she suggests setting the stage for the day's experiences by talking to the students about the structure of the day and to end with a movement activity (Delaney, 2020).

Whether an outdoor lesson is only an hour-long class or ongoing sessions all year, researchers suggest similar goals for successful nature school programming. Natural Start Alliance (2019) states that this learning should be "place- based, seasonal, and authentic experiences that emerge from children’s interactions and evolving relationship with the natural world."

Bailey (2022) suggests the following principles for nature schooling with young students:

  1. Lessons can be taught in any outdoor space...

  2. Weather isn’t an issue ...

  3. Children are treated with respect and are taught to respect each other ...

  4. They place a high value on playtime...

  5. Risky play is viewed as an essential element...

Another type of child-led nature learning is called Forest School. This learning model is based on the Scandinavian model which has a strong focus on the importance of ‘place’ for learning and is ingrained in decades of practice from its roots in the Danish Udeskole approach (Barrable & Arvanitis, 2018). Researchers have identified certain characteristics that follow the Forest School model. Kashin (2015) states that "the guiding principle at Forest School is that children are competent and engaged learners, and with guidance and support, are able to lead their own learning process in directions far beyond what an educator can initiate on their own."

Kashin (2015) also explains that forest school does not necessarily have to happen in an actual forest, but rather follows the guiding principles that include requirements such as being "a long-term process of regular and repeated sessions in the same natural space" that is "rooted in building an on-going relationship to place and on principles of place-based education." Educators are still valued as a source of information while the students explore, as they "identify, co-manage and navigate risk." Yet they are to play the role of facilitators rather than experts and create opportunities with open-ended experiences. They also are to "utilize emergent, experiential, inquiry-based, play-based, and place-based learning approaches" (Kashin, 2015).

Barrable & Arvanitis (2018) emphasize the connection between the Forest School's goals and what must happen for self-actualization under the Maslow theory. The researchers point to the three main self-actualization elements of autonomy, competence and relatedness and emphasize that the Forest School model promotes students making meaningful choices about their own learning, gradual exposure to higher level challenges in the same environment with supportive feedback from adults, and building strong and positive relationships with other people and with the natural world (Barrable & Arvanitis, 2018). This type of learning works well for gifted children as they get their motivation internally, rather than from external rewards and prefer to work on projects they personally find meaningful.

Using these above nature-based and child-centered theories and learning structures allows educators to be facilitators. Further, deconstructing the top-down methods and standardized curriculum methods in the traditional brick and mortar classroom allows for an extension of more integrated skill-building, motivation, and a greater growth in self-determination for gifted students.

Equity outdoors

While we work to advocate for outdoor education in the school systems, we also need to be aware of a glaring fault of education in general regarding equitable access and the barriers that stand in the way of some students accessing the best educational practices. Although we are aware of academic learning gaps in education in general (Plucker & Peters, 2016), there is a dearth of research in the area of outdoor education regarding how race, income, abilities, and access to the outdoors are connected. But statistics show that children’s access to outdoor education is rife with inequality. That compounds the already inequitable and biased field of gifted education- a major fault that continues to allude repairs at the highest policy levels, even though researchers and advocates have been warning policy makers about these issues for decades.

For example, Dr. Donna Ford has written over 150 articles and book chapters on this topic and made over a thousand presentations at professional conferences and organizations, and in school districts over the last thirty years. And yet, she says the fight has not changed much since she started. She stated, “the barriers to increasing the participation of Black and Hispanic students in gifted education, as noted earlier, have remained pretty much similar to those that I discussed 20 years ago, 15 years ago, 10 years ago, and 5 years ago” (Ford, 2010). She said that in 2010, yet, more than a decade later she is still having to discuss these same issues (see Ford et al, 2018; Middleton, 2023).

According to a report on equity in outdoor education by Youth Outside (2017), “access to programs varies by race, ethnicity, and socioeconomic status. For example, the Outdoor Foundation reports that 70% of outdoor recreation participants are white.” The Natural Start Alliance’s 2017 of 121 nature-based preschool programs in the United States found that only 3% of outdoor preschoolers are Black or African American, only 7% are Hispanic or Latino, and only 1% of students are American Indian or Alaska Native (Deines, 2021). As preschool-aged programs often dominate the nature-schooling landscape, there are likely even less children of color accessing elementary and higher-level outdoor school programs.

In order to improve and grow more diverse programs we must get better at communications and the way we interact regarding expectations in educational systems, according to Castelli et al. (2012). Castelli et al. states that “Equity in the distribution of and access to information has become a crucial prize at stake for the public education service,” (p. 2249). They point out that no matter what is communicated, it is also important that programs look at the ways they scaffold the ability to enter the activities, the differentiation that allows for everyone to come to the same level, and the way barriers are anticipated and overcome (p. 2248).

Redlining that created neighborhoods without as much easy access to parks and other open spaces, as well as the historical race-based beliefs of the founders of parks have contributed to racial stereotypes regarding who “belongs” outdoors (Gosalves, 2020). Violence against Blacks and other non-white populations have caused many people of color to hesitate about going outside to parks and other public spaces. Gosalves (2020) stated, “Black people and other people of color have to think really hard about being in outdoor spaces and being seen as out of place because the white majority can perceive people of color to be out of place in outdoor spaces.” She points out, “for people of color, they have to plan trips and gather friends or family to go with them or make sure they go hiking in groups. They think twice about going outside and going to remote places where they are not familiar with their surroundings.”

But, people of all races enjoy the outdoors and it is important that we change stereotypes and make outdoor spaces welcoming for everyone. As Gosalvez (2020) states, Black people have made distinctive contributions in the outdoors and are at the forefront of promoting diversity and inclusion in outdoor spaces. But, many of these grassroots efforts are not discussed in the classroom or mentioned in nature-based education research.

Access to the outdoors is limited for other student populations as well. As Rowland-Shea et al. (2020) state, there is an “inequitable distribution of nature in America, among other barriers that racially and economically marginalized communities as well as LGBTQ and disabled people face to accessing the outdoors.” They recommend the following:

Creating more close-to-home outdoor opportunities in communities of color and low-income communities; changing hiring and workplace practices in government agencies, nonprofits, and foundations to create more representative leadership teams, boards, and staff; improving consultation with tribal nations and pursuing more opportunities for tribal co-management of natural resources; and working to overcome the nature gap among children by bolstering education and outreach programs.

It is important that educators tell stories about people of all races and abilities being involved in the outdoors and as Gosalves (2020) describes, “stories of how people of color helped make the outdoors great.” Organizations should also take steps to hire more people of color and to ensure that locations are welcoming and promote feelings of safety.

It is important to create and nurture gifted programs that not only can identify and begin serving students of all races and income levels, but that actually retain diverse participants by providing services that make all students feel included and valued. Providing outdoor education access is just one piece of the puzzle- educators must go beyond that to create culturally relevant programs that offer inquiry and meaningful interactions that participants care about and want to return to again and again.

Another reason that some children cannot access outdoor education has to do with the costs. Many private forest schools and other nature programs can cost excessive amounts of money and be out of reach for many families (Moxon, 2019).

In order to promote getting our gifted children outdoors, we need to ensure that every child has access through public programs. Integrating outdoor standards in public education and ensuring neighborhood children can access parks from their homes are some ways that we can get closer to the goal of having more kids outside.

Educators and parents should advocate for programs that incorporate all of these important issues- that allow for inclusion of all students, the promote child-centered activities, that allow gifted students to express themselves in unique ways and explore things that matter to them and that are culturally relevant, and that are accessible to the public with little to no cost. It is likely we will see these programs continue to grow and thrive in today’s post-pandemic climate. It is up to advocates for the gifted to ensure that these policies and procedures are created to also include best practices for all gifted students to also get outside. Because the best place for learning is often right outside our school doors.


Kathleen Casper is an educator and attorney and is in the process of working with a board of directors to start a nature-based learning center in New England. Kathleen has spent many years working with the gifted and running outdoor excursions and activities for students and families. She was the state gifted education specialist for the Florida Department of Education, a former officer on the SENG board of directors, past president of the Florida Association for the Gifted, and former vice president of WAETAG. She worked as a gifted administrator and educator in Florida and Washington State and an education consultant for multiple districts across the country, including as the gifted coordinator for Florida Virtual Schools and the K-12 Highly Capable Program Facilitator for the Tacoma School District. Kathleen hosts a blog called OneWorld Gifted and is a freelance writer of books and articles in national and international publications.


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