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Reading the Landscape

Originally appears in the Spring 2006 issue

“The objective [of education] is to teach the student to see the land, to understand what he sees, and enjoy what he understands.” — Aldo Leopold1

Lacking outdoor experiences, many students are nervous or uncomfortable in the natural world because of their unfamiliarity with it. My college students remind me again and again of their feelings of alienation and discomfort outdoors. Many do not want the class to go outside and they especially do not want to go on field trips to natural areas. They are worried about the “pests” of the outdoors (e.g., poison ivy, mosquitoes, ticks) and seem unaware of the multitude of other organisms that are out there. In Last Child in the Woods, Richard Louv cites a 2002 British study that found that “the average eight-year-old was better able to identify characters from the Japanese card-trading game Pokemon than native species in the community where they lived; Pikachu, Metapod, and Wigglytuff were names more familiar to them than otter, beetle, and oak tree.”2

As educators, it is extremely important that we help students experience and eventually enjoy being outdoors. If they have opportunities to observe plants and animals and develop an understanding of relationships and processes in nature, it is more likely that they will want to protect the land in the future. Aldo Leopold and others have called this learning to “read the landscape”3; another way to put it is learning the “stories of the land.”4 Lessons in reading the landscape can be integrated into education programs in ways that meet curriculum standards and do not require large amounts of time or preparation. Here are a few activities that I use with all age groups, from elementary school to college age.

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Janice Schnake Greene is the director of the Bull Shoals Field Station, Missouri State University. The activity “Reading the Landscape” was developed by Leopold Education Project in St. Paul, Minnesota.