In the summer of 2021, I worked as a counselor in Iceland with a company called Travel for Teens. Part of this trip included a glacier walk on Vatnajokull, Iceland’s largest glacier. The campers – teenagers signed up for the Iceland trip – interacted with guides and learned about the history and the future of the glacier. While walking on the glacier, the guides explained where the glacier used to be, and how the warming climate had caused the glacier to retreat, which was exactly where the campers and I were standing.
After the glacier part of the tour, as we were removing our crampons (strap-on cleats designed for ice climbing) and preparing to finish the rest of the tour, a camper asked the guide why he chose this career path. In response, the guide stated that being able to educate tourists about this glacier and the impact human activity has on it is rewarding. He hoped that we would take what we had learned back to our own homes and translate our experience into actions that protect the environment.
Often in school, we learn through textbooks. It is a rare opportunity to experience what we learn from books outside of the classroom. Standing on that glacier and looking out to where it used to extend was a first-hand experience of climate change that was not possible within the walls of a classroom. While not all experiences in nature will resemble this one, all are valuable and can make a difference when learning.
My first connection with hands-on experience goes back to elementary school. I remember learning about earthquakes during a geology lesson, thinking back to a time when I experienced one in California. I remember being in a Taxi, about to be dropped off at an airport with my family, when it suddenly felt like someone was jumping on the back of the vehicle. When discussing earthquakes in class, I was eager to learn more about them because it was something I had directly experienced.
I was born and raised in Texas; however, the rest of my immediate and extended family is from the San Fransisco Bay Area in California. I have been traveling to the state since I was a baby for family reunions and other various occasions, experiencing the different sights and sounds, taking in what I can of California.
While I didn’t know it at the time, the memories of fishing with my grandpa, watching the fog roll in and out of San Francisco Bay, listening to the Sea Lions at Pier 39, feeling different sea creatures at Monterey Bay Aquarium, and walking with my toes in the sand at Stinson Beach, have impacted the way I learn and the value I place on the educational side of these nature-based experiences.
After having experienced nature in the real world, my curiosity drives me to inquire and learn more. For example, I was inclined to learn about fog in my meteorology class because throughout my life I have seen the fog rolling in and out of San Francisco Bay.
First-hand experience of any topic encourages knowledge retention and willingness-to-learn. Immersion in nature can have a lasting impact on children as well as adults if they are open to what nature has to offer. Participating in nature-based activities regularly, whether it’s taking a walk outside, riding a bike, or learning about an area you are in, can lead to a greater motivation to learn as well as increased ecological behavior, which are actions that contribute to environmental preservation or conservation.
My glacier tour guide probably knew this; he hoped that our interaction with a retreating glacier would inspire behavior change. I know that it certainly inspired me to continue learning as I pursue an undergraduate degree, and to continue to work to protect natural systems. What experiences have you had in nature, and have those experiences inspired you?