Tuesday, February 27, 2018

Educator Spotlight: Alayna Schmidt

Alayna Schmidt, a non-formal educator at Mountain Trail Outdoor School, just completed the North Carolina Environmental Education program. Alayna credits the program with helping her get a job where she not only teaches programs to students visiting the Mountain Trail Outdoor School but also cares for animals in the nature center, improves lessons, and maintain grounds and facilities. When she is not being a jack-of-all trades at work, Alayna enjoys nature photography, hiking, and knitting in her spare time.

Alayna’s favorite part of earning her certification was going to the various workshops. She not only learned a lot but also actively engaged with the environmental education network at these workshops. “I met some inspiring individuals in our community of educators,” Alayna notes. In particular, Alayna says that one workshop stood out to her as an important part of her certification experience, “The experience that stands out most to me was when I went to the Methods of Environmental Education workshop and had the opportunity to network with someone who would later offer me a work-study position.

In addition to using the program to make new connections and locate job opportunities, Alayna also designed and constructed an exhibit at the Pisgah Center for Wildlife Education for her community partnership project. Alayna made an animal track display in their exhibit hall. “Visitors from all over come to the center to find out more about the local wildlife, and my exhibit allows visitors to interact with what animal tracks in a local stream bank might look like.

Participating in the certification program strengthened Alayna’s self-confidence and changed her approach to teaching others: “Through this program, I have gained confidence in my ability to teach EE effectively. I am now aware of the incredible resources available to me, not just information and curricula, but also the community of passionate environmental educators I can reach out to in our state.” This community of educators was a key part of this program for Alayna. She recommended growing this support for future educators. “By having certified environmental educators in leadership or supervising roles volunteer to be mentors for people pursuing the certification, it could help individuals who are not currently working as an educator achieve their teaching hours, present an opportunity to gain valuable experience and networking, and strengthen our community of educators.

The program also altered the way Alayna thinks about environmental issues. She gained awareness of the complexities involved in solving environmental problems. However, Alayna also realized the important role environmental literacy plays in handling these complex problems. “I work to increase environmental literacy in our current and future decision-makers so that there will be an ever-increasing number of people with the knowledge and resources to make well-informed decisions regarding the environment.

To find out more about Mountain Trail Outdoor School, head to their website: www.kanuga.org/camps-outdoor-education/mountain-trail-outdoor-school/. To find out more about Pisgah Center for Wildlife, check out their website at ncwildlife.org/Learning/Education-Centers/Pisgah. To learn more about the Office of Environmental Education and Public Affairs and our certification program, visit us at www.eenorthcarolina.org.

Wednesday, February 21, 2018

Can Time in Nature Inspire Young Innovators?

Can Time in Nature Inspire Young Innovators?
By Marilyn P. Arnone


Fifty children who were recognized inventors were interviewed for The Young Innovators Project (http://theinnovationdestination.net) funded by the Institute of Museum and Library Services. These youngsters have developed innovations in areas that include health care, safety, and household improvements; most have been technological in nature. This is not surprising as these children were born digital and they are more comfortable with technology than their grandparents and even some of their parents, although it is often at the expense of spending more time with electronic devices and less time in nature.  Innovation spaces, STEM programs, and invention conventions across the country provide guidance and support for children to innovate. Yet, this author wonders if part of children’s preparation to innovate should also include both free and guided nature exploration and play. Can time spent in nature actually increase creativity and problem-solving so critical to innovation? The research suggests that this may actually be the case.

What the Research Says

Exposure to nature is important to creativity, problem-solving, and even intellectual development. In his acclaimed book “The Nature Principle: Reconnecting with Life in a Virtual Age,” author Richard Louv discusses how creative people are often “drawn to the outdoors for refreshment and ideas” (2012, p. 35). There is a growing body of research that also suggests that being outdoors may be conducive to getting our creative juices flowing.

 A study by Atchley, Strayer and Atchley (2012) found that a team of young adult backpackers scored higher in a test of creativity after spending four days on a trail hike as compared to a control group. Proximity to nature was also found to increase cognitive abilities, specifically a child’s ability to focus (Wells, 2000).  This enhanced “focus” was also found in another study of outdoor play and learning (Nedovic & Morrissey, 2013). Even simply exposing high school students to nature imagery can enhance creative performance according to a study by van Rompay (2016). With several conditions that varied the unpredictability and spaciousness of the imagery, high school students who were exposed to imagery with the highest degree of unpredictability and spaciousness scored the highest on a measure of creative thinking.

Nature-based risky play is play in which children experience some degree of uncertainty or challenge and is positively associated with exploration and an understanding of the world. In one recent study, researchers examined the effects of an intervention to increase nature-based risky play; the intervention involved the redesign of an outdoor playspace to maximize natural materials and opportunities for exploration. The early childhood educators who participated in the study reported improvements in both problem-solving and creativity among other results such as a decrease in boredom and stress after the intervention (Brussoni, Ishikawa, Brunelle & Herrinton, 2017). Wells and Evans (2003) also found that life stress was lower in children with exposure to nearby nature. Kiewra & Veselack (2016) found that pre-school children’s creativity in terms of problem-solving and ingenuity were increased when outdoor classrooms included predictable spaces, ample and consistent time, open-ended materials, and caring and observant adults who support creative play and learning.

With the above studies in mind, it hardly seems like an intuitive leap that adding an element of nature to children’s innovative thinking activities might contribute to increases in their innovative thinking.

Getting Started: Promote Inventive Thinking in School and Public Libraries Through Connections with Nature

You can certainly start small by bringing what nature you can into your library. From a “nature loose parts” station (natural outdoor materials like stones, twigs, pinecones, shells, and more for children to combine, take apart, or design with) to providing visual stimulation influenced by nature throughout the library. Bring children outside to explore in nearby nature, take a nature walk, observe natural patterns and color, practice “reading” the clouds, collect natural artifacts, create a journal, draw what is seen. These and other simple outdoor activities will help open creative pathways in the brain and set the tone for more inventive thinking exercises.

There is another benefit to exposure to nature as part of an inventive thinking curriculum; it may trigger creative ideas in students for solving environmental problems in their own communities. Additionally, it has often been stated that children need to develop an appreciation for nature before we can expect them to become its future stewards. In fact, some research has shown that positive direct experience in the outdoors guided by a trusted adult is an important factor in later involvement in protecting one’s environment (Chawla, 2007). It stands to reason that this very connection to nature may inspire future young innovators to create the inventions that will protect and sustain our precious planet.


The benefits of spending time exploring in the natural environment have been shown to have dramatic benefits to both children’s and adults’ health and well-being. There is now ample empirical support for the potential to increase students’ creative performance by spending time in nature. Additionally, spending time exploring the outdoors also helps to develop an appreciation of nature in our children such that they are motivated to invent solutions to some of our planet’s most pressing environmental problems, locally and globally. All this is worth educators’ consideration as they develop innovation spaces and programs that inspire creativity and inventive thinking.  Consider making just a few small changes to get started and if you see results, do some creative thinking yourself to see how you can expand your efforts to connect children to nature and, in so doing, unlock their creativity.

Dr. Marilyn Arnone is co- director of the Young Innovators Project, a professor of practice at Syracuse University’s iSchool, and a certified environmental educator in the state of NC. This blog post is the basis of a book chapter that the author is currently preparing.


Atchley, R.A., Strayer, D.L., Atchley, P. (2012). Creativity in the wild: Improving creative reasoning through immersion in natural settings. PLoS ONE, 7(12), 1-5.

Brussoni, M., Ishikawa, T., Brunelle, S., Herrington, S. (2017). Landscapes for play: Effects of an intervention to promote nature-based risky play in early childhood centres. Journal of Environmental Psychology, 54, 139-1550.

Chawla, L. (2007). Childhood experiences associated with care for the natural world: A theoretical framework for empirical results. Children, Youth and Environments, 17(4), 144-170.

Cszikszentmihalyi, M. (1975). Flow: The psychology of optimal experience. Harper & Row.

Kiewra, C., Veselack, E. (2016). Playing with nature: Supporting preschoolers' creativity in natural outdoor classrooms. The International Journal of Early Childhood Environmental Education, 4(1).

Louv, R. (2012). The Nature Principle: Reconnecting with life in a virtual age. Chapel Hill, NC: Algonquin Books.

Nedovic, S., Morrissey, A. (2013). Calm, active and focused: Children’s responses to an organic outdoor learning environment. Learning Environments Research, 16(2), 281-295.

van Rompay, T.J.L., Jol, T. (2016). Wild and free: Unpredictability and spaciousness as predictors of creative performance. Journal of Environmental Psychology, 48, 140-148.

Wells, N. M., Evans, G. W. (2003). Nearby nature: A buffer of life stress among rural children. Environment and Behavior, 35(3), 311-330.

Wells, N. M. (2000). At home with nature: Effects of 'greenness' on children's cognitive functioning. Environment and Behavior, 32(6), 775-795.

Tuesday, February 6, 2018

Educator Spotlight: Heidi Pruess

Heidi Pruess just completed the North Carolina Environmental Education Certification. Heidi credits the program with helping her start an “encore” or post-retirement career. Heidi owns Outdoor Experiences, LLC and hosts guided walks and hikes in urban and suburban settings throughout Mecklenburg County.

In addition to her work with Outdoor Experiences, Heidi is a trip coordinator for the North Carolina Wildlife Federation’s Great Outdoors University. She is also an appointed Park and Recreation Commissioner for Mecklenburg County.

When asked about her favorite part of earning her certification, Heidi says it was the breadth of experience from both her instructors and fellow classmates. “Learning by exposure and then trial and error, as these courses are organized, really imprinted the lessons and accelerated my understanding so much farther than a traditional classroom training. Those going through this certification process are such a brilliant group of educators!”

Heidi says the conversation during the certification about the Tbilisi principles was an experience in the program that stood out for her. “The Methods of EE and the ethics portion around the Tbilisi Declaration was such a refreshing reminder of why we do what we do as environmental educators.”

For her partnership project, Heidi worked with the Girl Scouts at the Dale Earnhardt Environmental Leadership Campus developing outdoor activities specific to their site. “Having received a Duke Energy grant, the Girl Scout facility was well stocked with sampling and discovery supplies. I utilized the resources available in the Environmental Leadership Campus to develop experiences that explored the outdoors with data gathering and nature exploring activities for camp counselors and campers themselves. Each Girl Scout troop that visits the Environmental Leadership Campus at this camp will have these activities available to them.”

Heidi says the program led to change in her approach to teaching by providing her with environmental training and curriculum. “I did not previously have exposure to educating all age groups and now, through both the suite of trainings and the environmental education program in general, I have both learning experiences and the tools to practice EE for pre-K through adult audiences.”

When asked if the program changed the way she viewed environmental issues, Heidi says, “Environmental issues have always been a part of my life, as a Certified Environmental Professional for more than 26 years and now as an encore EE non-formal educator. The EE certification program has provided me with a broader perspective for addressing the intersection of environmental issues and the human experience.”