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Beyond Words: The Beauty of Outdoor Education


autismBeth Kuklinski is an unconventional educator who founded a one of a kind school for unique students. Jordan Lake School of the Arts is a groundbreaking program that pairs nature and the arts to unlock and expand the gifts each student holds. Beth currently hosts a national radio show, Breathing Underwater: Stories of Autism. She is also working on her first book based on her experiences.    

I often think the greatest mistake any outdoor educator makes is to believe they are “teaching” children about nature.  After spending several years taking a morning hike with students, every day and in almost every type of weather condition, I know this isn’t true. Many of my students have autism, and would seem to initially arrive hesitant about many things, but usually not these calming walks. All of my students would likely say that our hiking, our outdoor education classes, and time with animals is a uniting factor in our small school community and one of the things they love most about their time at Jordan Lake School of the Arts. 

My students are one of a kind. Some use few words. Some can become overstimulated by sensory input. Many find it hard to connect to people and make friendships. In the woods, by the lake, that seems to fall away. One student comes to mind so clearly. I always call her our “Hellen Keller” student-in no disrespect. She arrives with the diagnosis of autism, and would bite, hit, run and scream faster than she would look at you. She rarely could keep her shoes on. Morning hike became a time where we could give her piggybacks and slowly teach her to walk. Slowly, she began to calm. She started walking and balancing on fallen logs, commenting on the birds and lake, and before our eyes-over time she became a different child. She can hold hands, has friends, and loves to talk. It is when we are outdoors that my students convey things they have learned and know that they cannot express on paper. It is a learning and communication style that works: walking, talking, using our hands and getting dirty. Surrounded by nature, they emerge from the cocoon they have been locked in. They come out with wings.

Our time is far more than the trivialized “camp” idea that people seem to unfortunately associate with outdoor education, or even worse “recess.” Walking lakeside and weaving in and out of the forest is more than basic exercise or exploring nature. It is a ritual, and homage, a dedication, to ourselves and to the natural world to begin our day joined and appreciative of the life sustaining world we live in.

autismHere, in our magical space, we as educators can point to sign posts of sorts, offer clues and facts as we know it, but the mystery is larger than us and it continually moves to amaze and make earnest and appreciative students of us all. To be an outdoor educator is to recognize that we were all forged in the stars and walk among the beauty and power of something so enormous and yet so detailed that there is little chance of conveying ever all that could be said. What we can do is inspire and allow children to become passionate about the natural world and understand the interconnectedness of all things. We build character and stewardship because children become enamored with the unsolvable riddle of possibilities and the memories of moments with an open sky and leaf filled braches as a classroom backdrop.

In this world, these children with autism and all students have heard a calling. It has drawn them back from wherever it is they have gone and fills them with peace and serenity. From that place the words, the friendships, flow and the children blossom. Nature regulates our bodies, integrates our senses and leads us to an awe-filled realization that there is a powerful, passionate, calm, ever changing and completely intertwined system at work that needs little from us, other than to preserve and protect it from our own selves.  It is the best therapy, the most powerful healer, and the holder of untold potentials…if we can only learn to listen. Through my students with autism, I am beginning to learn to hear it, too. Not just with my ears, but with my soul.

If there is any education that is needed for the preservation of our natural world, for the creation of a future of stewards, and for the ultimate learning experience, it is outdoor education. It keeps calling me further. I am moving away from the fluorescent lights and button downed shirts I used to know. It fills me as a teacher and student and has shifted my human experience and filled me with gratitude for the sun, tress and the planet we call home. My life is different and is full in a way I cannot convey in words.  

 Someone once told me that the mockingbird still sings the song of the Moa, a bird that became extinct hundreds of years ago. In the quiet of the woods, I hear many sounds that speak to me in some ancient and innate way. I am fascinated by the idea that there are messages shared between the 13 year locusts I encountered last season that bring them all out of  a more than decade long  deep self- made hibernation to simultaneously rise to the surface of the soil and sing in a united song. That a song known so intrinsically that it brings together thousands of insects to dance and multiply in cohesion is beyond comprehension. That is the greatest lesson I have received as an outdoor educator- that it is all so much bigger than me and has been before and after me. I am here to simply lead the children to the greatest teacher of all-Mother Nature, and my students remind me every day that the lesson is so much greater than words. Outdoor education is not exploring a world apart from us, but a homecoming to all that we have the possibility to know and be.


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