Interview with Shawn Farrell - Thoughts on Outdoor Education

1. How did your relationship with nature begin? 

As a kid we were always outside.  My parents just sort of turned us loose, I have a younger brother (19 months younger) and we always just went outside and played together. In my younger years we lived in Europe and my parents took us to a variety of countries to expose us to as many possible environments and people as possible.  I clearly remember the awe and grandeur of the Swiss and French Alps. 

Then once we were back in the states as kids we had free reign of the neighborhood via bikes and on foot.  We would play in any sort of wooded area we could find. It would feel endless and huge to us, even though it wasn’t actually much land.  We build forts and “cabins”.  We would wade into ponds and creeks.  We dug bike tracks or just played elaborate games of capture the flag all within various patches of wood.

I remember complaining one year that my mom wouldn’t buy us white sneakers, and she said “you will never get white sneakers because you will have them dirty before they are out of the store”.  She would sew knee patches on our pants before we ever wore them.  I think my parents were very tolerant of how dirty we would get.  We were always covered in dust, mud, grass, twigs, evidence of whichever landscape we were playing in that day.  They also put up with our various critter collections, we always caught frogs, snakes, turtles & fish and whatever wounded animal we could rescue.  We would bring them home and they would help us build containers to keep them.  I love the memories of fishing with my dad, or just catching fireflies as a family. 

My parents are far from outdoorsy people, they love to say their idea of camping is the Holiday Inn.  But they just sent us outside to make our own fun and then encouraged and supported us in our daily mini-adventures.  We were always expected to be outside, and, as long as we didn’t cause trouble for anyone else we were pretty much free to roam. 

2.What led to you working in nature? 

Nature is what got me through school even in junior high school and high school.  I was always riding mountain bikes, skiing, hiking or taking the dogs for a walk in the various nature areas around our house.  I had no idea what I wanted to do once I graduated high school, so I headed to the University of Montana, where I could have access to much larger areas of wild lands. There forestry and forest fire management sounded interesting to study, because I just wanted to do anything to stay out in the woods.  I didn’t last long in school because I enjoyed being outside more than studying. Two years later I landed at a small environmental based working college in northern Vermont, Sterling College. Where many of your classes were outside and as a student you were expected to work on the farm and in the forest. The “final” your first semester was a four day winter backpacking trip in northern Vermont.  They really opened my eyes about education and possibilities to many opportunities working in nature.  

Through Sterling I focused on outdoor leadership and natural resource management.  I had two internships in outdoor programs.  Along with a semester traveling by van with 10 other students throughout the southwestern United States.  We studied water and border issues while backpacking in Big Bend National Park.  We studied history and tribal conflicts with the Hopi & Navajo tribes.  Geology while hiking through the Grand Canyon. It was an amazing education and engaged so many of my learning styles that allowed me to thrive in an academic environment.

From there I eventually worked for a variety of outdoor programs, teaching climbing, canyoneering and backpacking.  I eventually landed at a wilderness therapy program in Utah, and really felt truly connected to a job.  I loved it. Helping kids that were struggling or making bad decisions, through the challenges that outdoor environments offer was simply amazing.  I had the opportunity to guide so many teenagers and families through healing themselves and their relationships with one another.  As a guide I could support kids through their own struggles and let them explore what answers worked for them, while at the same time living outside and enjoying many nights sleeping on the ground. 

Once engaged in this line of work, I was able to find jobs all over the country, Texas, Oregon, Montana, Idaho, and finally in North Carolina.  I spent most of the next 22 years of my life working in various wilderness programs through a variety of positions including CEO, and corporate director of operations.  And even in those “office” bound positions, I still sought out as many opportunities to go hiking with the kids or spend time out in the woods or desert with a bunch of staff or students.

3.Tell us more about you work and personal experience with nature education. What are its benefits?

As mentioned above I have had any number of formal and informal opportunities at nature education.  As a young kid, I had the informal education of how cold water is when you fall through thin ice, or the stench of a bog when you slop through the muck.  More formally as a student I was exposed to Nature’s Classroom projects in middle and junior high schools.  Our 8thgrade class went out to an island for a week and had a variety of environmental science classes and experiential activities focused on teamwork.  I remember idolizing one of the instructors when she taught me to identify sea cucumbers and then told me I could eat them.  It was magic.

Once I arrived at Sterling the lessons became much more formal and focused.  We had a very rounded education that was rooted in environmental studies.  From the specifics of the sciences to the nuances of government legislation and management, to the human interaction and relationship with nature.  That was combine with the work on the school farm and in the forest harvesting trees to understand how the theory unfolds into the reality of needing food and wood for our survival.

Beyond college I have sought out continued teaching and education around tree, plant and animal identification, medicinal herbs/plants, primitive wilderness skills etc.  And with each environment comes new species to identify and learn how to use. I remember when I canoed the Suwannee River in Florida, I had never been in a “wild” environment around alligators and I had to figure out how to do it.  By asking people and learning.  That’s one of the great things about nature there are so many different types of environments that there is almost endless learning opportunities.  Then you can start to make connections when you see similar species across varied areas, its really incredible.

4. What are your favorite nature spots in South Florida so far? 

I really haven’t had a ton of time to explore that many areas of the natural areas of South Florida, given we have only been here two months.  But my wife and I did a wandering bike ride through Shark Valley in the Everglades many years ago, and I was so very excited to see all the different birds.  I think she quickly grew tired of me yelling out the various names of the birds. 

This may sound dumb but I have also really enjoyed the “urban nature” Miami has offered.  I spent some time in Coconut Grove and enjoyed early morning jaunts to watch the peacock mating rituals.  Or the other morning riding my bike on the M bike trail through Palmetto Bay and finding an urban farm.  To find little pockets of wild lands.  Even the trails and the ruins at the old Crandon Park Zoo on Key Biscayne or Bill Baggs Cape State Park.  I feel like there are so many opportunities both big and small. 

We have four-year-old twin girls who also love to be outside, so I now have the chance to teach them lots of new things, but at the same time they remind me we don’t need massive open spaces to have nature encounters.  We spend a lot of time counting how many different lizard types we can count or identifying different sea birds at the ocean. Which usually ends up in a game of chasing the seagulls.

5. What kind of interaction with Nature do you wish every child had? 

Honestly it is just the time and encouragement to spend unorganized, self (or other kid) driven play outside.  I really struggle with how our society has shifted to inside play or highly organized play & activities.  And I’m not knocking those either as much can be learned through team or group activities and sports.  And what kids can learn on the computer today is amazing.  However, I think what we are losing is just the opportunity for kids to explore their own world and even their own thoughts and dreams from just playing outside.  If they play alone they can build great dreams and adventures in their heads as they build giant fairy or gnome cities with sticks and rocks.  In groups they learn interpersonal skills and teamwork.  I marvel at how kids can learn to quickly regulate their own levels of risk, when playing outside.  Or how to emotionally regulate when they aren’t surrounded by walls all the time. Richard Louv wrote about Nature Deficit Disorder, and while I’m not quite convinced on his research, I believe his ideas are sound.  Kids are missing out on a vast opportunity for emotional, interpersonal and spiritual development by not being allowed to explore their outside world.  It is painful to wander through neighborhoods and never see or hear kids outside playing.

I certainly believe that all people can benefit from true wilderness expeditions, backpacking, primitive camping and those sorts of grand adventures. But not everyone can afford or have the luxury of doing such time intensive endeavors.  But, every kid should have the opportunity and honestly the expectation to spend time outside.  Whether it’s a clump of trees in the middle of the neighborhood, or the community park.  Even an empty lot can become a nature encounter for kids.  And they should have the commitment from the adults in the community that allows them to have those chances.  And to have adults encourage, and even ideally role model this for them. And sure we will need to put up with some muddy sneakers and stained pants every once in a while, or a frog and lizard in the tub.

6. What advice would you give parents who are trying to foster in their kids a love for nature? 

Go.  Just get outside.  Often we stunt ourselves by trying to plan the perfect wilderness or nature experience for our kids.  Its like we want to script the bald eagle flying by at noon to kick off our lecture on raptors.  We need to get over ourselves.  We just need to take our kids outside, wherever and as often as possible.  Try to leave it as unscripted as possible, allow the kids to guide what becomes the focus.  Sometimes it might be dead trees, other days tidal pools, somedays its just the weeds in the back yard.  Somedays will be all about imaginative play and grand adventures, other days it will be bugs and butterflies.  As parents try to hang back, let the kids direct where the “opportunity” unfolds. So often we get hung up on tasks or achievements: “we’re going to hike here, then here.  We will summit this peak, and then have lunch here”. That task orientation can ruin the opportunity you have with your kids.  Enjoy the connection, enjoy the curiosity.  Be ok with not having all the answers.  Ask more questions, than giving lectures.  Encourage your kids to go out, find and explore.  Be ok, with your kids getting dirty.  Even when you are out of your comfort zone, push a bit further, maybe its ok, to get muddy yourself. 

One of my fondest memories was potentially a complete disaster with my girls.  I took them hiking and I was super focused on getting them to a waterfall.  I was cajoling, encouraging, and at times even bribing them to “push on”, but they really weren’t in the mood or just too tired.  I was getting more and more frustrated because we hadn’t gone very far, and I wanted to “blow their minds” by showing them this waterfall.  Finally we all just sat down to rest, and have a drink.  I was quite annoyed that we hadn’t made it far at all.  When one of my kids asked if she could slide down the steep hill, my inclination was to say “no, we need to keep hiking”. Ultimately I caught myself being too focused on the task of the waterfall, and realized the error I was making. We ended up spending an hour doing laps sliding down a wet muddy embankment, that they still talk about. We were able to talk about the different colors of mud and dirt, which leaves were the slipperiest.  And we build a strong memory of fun and adventure in nature, where they still ask to go back to the “sliding hill”.  Overall instead of disaster it became a strong connection for them and nature.



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