My Outdoor Life: Karen Christenson on educating in the outdoors

  • Article by: AS TOLD TO KATY READ
  • Updated: May 15, 2014 - 3:11 PM

In our occasional series about outdoor people and lifestyles, this award-winning science teacher from St. Anthony Park Elementary School discusses the benefits of taking her students outdoors.


Karen Christenson is one of five educators recently honored by Project Learning Tree, the environmental educational arm of the American Forestry Foundation.

I grew up the youngest of six children [in New Brighton] and our house was always very lively and there was always a lot going on. I started going outdoors as my place of solace, my oasis. We had a big back yard with two weeping willow trees. I would climb the trees and just sit up there and dream and wonder and rest and have my own space. We were really lucky to live near a large park, and our parents gave us tons of freedom to explore, to climb trees and try out fishing and make up our own games.

One of the things I wish for children today is that they had some of that same unstructured exploration time outdoors. It can be so magical.

On my 33rd birthday [in 1999] I was diagnosed with cancer. I was living on a farm in River Falls, Wis., and was on medical leave for about six weeks. I had some pretty significant physical changes after the surgery — I had all my lymph nodes removed — so getting my system back to sort of normal functioning wasn’t easy. I reconnected with that sense of the healing and solace of nature and trees. Just being outdoors was such a balm, it helped me “reboot” and recalibrate my rhythm.

Also over the years I’ve experienced some episodes of anxiety. But any time I’ve had the opportunity to go outdoors, I always feel better. I cannot think of a time that the anxiety has not eased from being in nature. And so I always tell people it is the best medicine in the world to just sit outside on a park bench or take a walk or sit in the sunshine or watch the rain coming down. What a balm. Medicine with no side effects.

About 10 years ago, I was teaching sixth grade in the St. Paul public schools, and I had a particularly challenging class. It was a large class, and there were a lot of students who had pretty significant emotional-behavioral difficulties. Before that point, I had kept my personal/family/nature life really separate from my life as a teacher. My teacher self was really focused on curriculum and the paperwork aspect of the job. That year the sixth-graders were all invited on the Mississippi River for the Big River Journey, this incredible program put on through the National Park Service with experts from different fields of science. They take you on one of the big paddle-wheel boats, and they have all of these different stations onboard where you learn about water quality, geology, river history, stewardship, boats, birds and ecosystems. I had the biggest “eureka!” Here were these kids that were truly such a handful in the classroom and they were completely focused, with awesome behavior. I was like, oh, my gosh, education can be this way. Connecting children to the river, to the trees, to the rocks — that can be what the learning is about. That can be the core of learning.

Truthfully, I had started thinking of maybe leaving education because I was like, I just cannot keep playing classroom “police officer.” It’s not my strength, that’s not why I went into teaching. On that Big River Journey, the kids were so excited. And they weren’t just excited that day. Afterward we did a bunch of science experiments and writing activities and group summaries about the trip, and they stayed engaged. I had such a good end of the year, and that trip literally changed my teaching. It was like, OK, now I get it. I can integrate all of this and make it interesting and let the kids’ natural curiosity and engagement guide us.

Of course I have to address standards and all of that. I have to be the facilitator. But we have the best teaching materials in the world. We have trees, we have rocks, we have birds, we have animal tracks, we have snow.

So in math we can measure trees, we can count leaves, we can graph information on types of insects. In social studies we can map the school grounds, we can learn about the natural history of the area and the changes over time. In science we can do things with camouflage, with textures, we can identify trees, we can look at parts and functions of plants. For writing we can do descriptive writing using real things students find. The possibilities are endless.

There are some things that we have to do indoors, but there are a lot of things that we can or should do outdoors. It makes it more fun and more engaging and the kids seem to remember things more than if we just do the paper and pencil exercises. The outdoors can be the most amazing classroom!

Katy Read • 612-673-4583

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  • Christenson presided over a forestry lesson at St. Anthony Park Elementary School.

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