By: Maggie McIntyre
Muddy Sneakers, one of the many organizational members of Environmental Educators of North Carolina, promotes outdoor education for fifth grade students in the state of North Carolina.
They believe that learning through engaging with nature is the best way for students to develop a sense of place and identity connected to the environment. Connecting to the land and the place they live is also important as students learn how to become invested members of their communities.
The organization was founded in 2007 by two local camp owners and a conservationist near Brevard, NC. After reading the book “Last Child in the Woods”, they wanted to connect local kids in public schools with nature so that they too could have formative childhood outdoor experiences.
Nikki Jones, the Western North Carolina Program Director at Muddy Sneakers, along with other Muddy Sneakers staff members, works with students to instill a strong sense of self in these kids through experiential learning outdoors.
“The ways that nature becomes a part of their identity is really key for developing the next generation of land stewards,” she said.
Jones was born into the environmental education field, as she had park rangers, foresters, and science educators in her family growing up. She returned to the field in her adulthood because the experiences she had as a child learning from and learning in nature were so impactful that she wanted to be able to do the same for others.
She said she strongly believes that the environment and culture of a place co-create each other. Learning about human interaction with the land both positively and negatively is essential to understanding a community.
“Children learn best by doing and by being curious and experiencing that sense of wonder, and there's no better place for that than outside,” she said.
The COVID-19 pandemic posed a huge roadblock in Muddy Sneakers' goal of providing outdoor science education to students as their programming had been primarily in-person. They had to find ways to support their partner schools without seeing students in-person.
For Muddy Sneakers, that support came through development of a remote fifth grade science curriculum that stayed true to the values of the organization such as inquiry, observation, and integration of the natural word in learning.
After developing the remote curriculum for students in North Carolina during the pandemic, Muddy Sneakers was able to translate it into a classroom-based curriculum that is available to their partner teachers and has received very positive feedback.
Fifth graders across the state of North Carolina are at the perfect developmental age for outdoor science, according to Jones, which is why schools are more likely to invest in that little something extra to help their students become curious and engaged learners. These kids are taking more control of their own learning, which can be a pivotal point in their education as they are developing new skills and starting to learn outside the classroom.
Although Muddy Sneakers has been a successful organization within the state, there is still a lot of growth that needs to happen within the environmental education field.
“Personally, I think that there are a lot of areas in the state of NC that are deeply underserved with EE opportunities,” Jones said.
Muddy Sneakers is always looking for ways they can grow to help fill the gaps in more underserved areas. They want these valuable educational opportunities to be available to all children and are taking steps to get there by partnering with schools in these areas of the state.
Jones has seen Muddy Sneakers programs impact kids in many ways, but what she appreciates most is the empowerment she witnesses. She said that when kids are learning new skills outdoors, even things as simple as learning to take care of their basic needs in the woods, they feel so much more confident in themselves.
“My favorite is the look of amazement on a student’s face when they do something they didn’t think they could do,” Jones said.
For many kids, Muddy Sneakers programs are the first time they are able to learn in a new environment. Jones said that it’s amazing to see a child who is not naturally suited to the classroom environment thrive in the outdoors.
Jones said that she is often most moved when she sees a teacher or principal rethink the way they view a student after seeing them succeed in outdoor learning in ways they don't necessarily in the classroom. She finds that any challenges in communicating with schools about the value of the program often vanish once stakeholders see the benefits in person.
Kids have so much more freedom outdoors, and Jones said that they are often able to recognize their own abilities to wonder and explore through science. She said that many former students come back to tell her and others that their experience with Muddy Sneakers in fifth grade has influenced their life and career path, which goes to show just how powerful environmental education can be for kids.
Photo Credits: Muddy Sneakers
Maggie McIntyre is a first year environmental studies student at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. She was born and raised in Greensboro, NC with a passion for learning and being in the great outdoors.