A traditional education is not suitable for every student. Malcolm Drips, a precocious nine-year-old of mixed racial heritage, is one of those students. At 18 months of age, he was diagnosed with autism and attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD). For him, the constraints of learning in common desks and chairs was too confining. He acted out and was labeled as “difficult” to teach because he was unable to sit still through a standard lesson plan in a traditional classroom.
The reaction Malcolm received from daycare centers and schools is not unusual. According to a 2019 report issued by the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, children of color who are identified as “difficult” to teach, like Malcolm, are not given the same opportunities to better manage their learning disabilities or improve their social skills (Riddle and Sinclair, 2019).
As a result, Malcolm’s parents, Dayne Drips and Elizabeth Aswegan, specifically looked for a school that would understand Malcolm’s behavioral issues. According to Aswegan, the schools Malcolm attended were aware he was autistic and had ADHD; yet he was kicked out of everyone. That all changed when they enrolled him in Nature School at the Aldo Leopold Nature Center (ALNC) in Monona, Wisconsin.
Not far from downtown Madison, ALNC is set in the middle of a restored oak prairie and includes two miles of hiking trails, a turtle pond, and a state-of-the-art indoor/outdoor teaching facility. The grounds provide young people, like Malcolm, with the opportunity to freely express a learning style that defies the rigid structures of a conventional classroom. At ALNC’s Nature School, Malcolm learns inside and outside. Even during the winter when temperatures drop below freezing, he still goes outdoors and is able to excel. After one year at ALNC, Malcolm’s parents knew he had finally found an educational home, and during the three years he has been at ALNC, Malcolm has shown marked improvements in his behavior and cognitive abilities.
ALNC’s Nature School allows for learning to happen organically, shepherded by seasoned educators. With a focus on nature-based learning, the Nature School uses an emergent-style curriculum that is led by student inquiry and interest. The curriculum maintains a flexible schedule that allows for exploration, inquiry, and teachable moments, while scheduled activities throughout each class session create a familiar structure for students every day.
It is within this structured yet flexible teaching environment where a child, like Malcolm, can directly respond to all the stimuli going on around him. The appearance of animals and insects or the rustling of leaves in the wind become opportunities to learn, not mere distractions in the environment. A 2009 study published in the Journal of Attention Disorders found that as little as 20 minutes in a natural space can raise attention performance levels of children relative to the same amount of time in most other settings. The study’s authors conclude that green outdoor environments can “enhance attention not only in the general population but also in ADHD populations. ‘Doses of nature’ might serve as a safe, inexpensive, widely accessible new tool in the tool kit for managing ADHD symptoms” (Taylor and Kuo, 2009).
While ALNC provides Malcolm with an environment that meets his needs and enables him to learn, he is one of only six children of color among more than 30 students at this nature-based learning center. As a private institution, like many environmental education facilities across the country, ALNC struggles to bring more children of color into its fold. Even with discounted tuition and scholarships for low-income families, the center faces the challenge of convincing parents and school boards of the value of a nature-based education. This is a struggle that is not going away any time soon. It is estimated that by 2045, the population of the United States will favor a citizenry that identities as non-white (Frey, 2018). Which begs the question, what will happen to an institution that fails to address the interests and needs of the community it is dedicated to serve?
ALNC is keenly aware of the demographic shift of the local and national population. That is why the organization has formed a special inclusion, diversity, equity, and access (IDEA) task force, which aims to attract and retain more Black, Hispanic, Asian, and Native American young people. As an organization, ALNC’s lack of diversity could prove to be an existential threat if it is incapable of engaging these emerging communities. The IDEA task force’s goal is to make the case among donors and parents of potential students to encourage more children of color to attend nature-based programs, like Nature School.
ALNC’s staff and board of directors are also creating programs that expand the center’s audience to underrepresented members of the local community. For example, ALNC partners with Madison School and Community Recreation to create summer learning opportunities for academically challenged students and training for their staff. They have eliminated public admission fees for indoor play spaces and opened signature events to the public at no cost. Their remote learning program, Wonder Bugs On the Road, coordinates with the Madison Metropolitan School District’s Play and Learn program to provide zero-cost courses at community centers throughout Madison to remove transportation, language, and financial barriers to participation. And, whenever possible, outreach coordinators build relationships and foster communication with each new family to engage them in other ALNC programming.
Despite their best efforts, rates of measurable success have been quite limited. However, ALNC’s administrators and board members are not giving up because they are committed to the belief that every child should have ready access to nature-based learning. Access to natural spaces can help address issues of social disparity that so often result in negative health outcomes. The calming effects of green environments can help lower blood pressure, minimize the release of stress hormones, and bolster the immune system. These settings also provide the obvious benefits of fresh air, clean drinking water, and reduced exposure to toxic pollutants (Bratman et al., 2019).
When it comes to children of color in education, their limited access to nature is further exacerbated by how behavioral issues are resolved in the classroom. In a 2019 study, data clearly showed that Black students are sent to the main office, suspended, or expelled more often than other students and when they are, they receive stiffer punishments. The research also indicates that children of color are disproportionately subjected to punishment for misbehavior at a higher frequency than their white counterparts (Riddle and Sinclair, 2019). It is impossible to know if Malcolm’s ethnic heritage played a direct role in his expulsion from any of the schools or daycare facilities he previously attended. One thing is certain – his behavior, mental acuity, and ability to play well with others improved dramatically when he was able to learn in a natural environment.
All children deserve to learn in environments that are safe, welcoming, and meet their varied needs. The path forward begins with dedicated teachers and administrators who are trained to be sensitive to the cultural interests and priorities of underrepresented members of the local community. ALNC’s IDEA task force strives to improve its efforts to directly reach out to area empowerment groups, public school teachers, childcare facilities, and other institutions that address the needs of the underserved. The center’s executive director, Michael Strigel, knows that community building with those who ALNC has not been traditionally engaged with is critical. Through the IDEA task force, he asserts that ALNC must prove it is listening and capable of providing potential parents and students with what they need instead of telling those individuals what they think is good for them. Strigel further acknowledges that the burden to institute change and inclusivity is on ALNC because, too often, society has intentionally excluded the very people they are striving to attract. “We must be at least as intentional in our efforts toward inclusion” (Strigel, 2021). Only when everyone feels they have a real opportunity to participate in and benefit from ALNC’s programming can true diversity, equity, and inclusion be achieved.
Bratman, G., Anderson, C., Berman, M., Cochran, B., de Vries, S., Flanders, J., Folke, C., Frumpkin, H., Gross, J., Hartig, T., Kahn Jr., P., Kuo, M., Lawler, J., Levin, P., Lindahl, T., Meyer-Lindenberg, A., Mitchell, R., Ouyang, Z., Roe, J., Scarlett, L., Smith, J., van den Bosch, M., Wheeler, B., White, M., Zheng, H., and Daily, G. (2019). Nature and mental health: An ecosystem service perspective. Science Advances, 5(7), eaax0903. doi: 10.1126/sciadv.aax0903
Riddle, T. and Sinclair, S. (2019). Racial disparities in school-based disciplinary actions are associated with county-level rates of racial bias. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America, 116(17),
Strigel, M. (2021). Personal communication.
Taylor, A. and Kuo, F. (2009). Children with attention deficits concentrate better after a walk in the park. Journal of Attention Disorders, 12(5), 402-409. doi: 10.1177/1087054708323000.
is a freelance journalist who specializes in telling stories about outdoor recreation and environmental conservation. He has worked in the outdoor industry since 1989 as a guide, outfitter, independent sales representative, writer, and photographer. He is the author of The Adventure Gap: Changing the Face of the Outdoors and the co-writer/co-producer of the documentary film, An American Ascent.