In the warm, seventy-degree spring weather, Loy Farms was alive with the constant sounds of birds chirping, a gust of wind rustling the fields of flowers. A circle of colorfully painted benches sat partially shaded by a tree beginning to show leaf buds. 

A group gathered around some miscellaneous objects laid on the ground: five-gallon pails, pieces of wood, and an assortment of random tools. 

Class was in session. Instructions from the professor were simple: “Go create.”

This is what a typical day of class looks like for Elon University’s Assistant Professor of Education Scott Morrison. 

“My students always know if we ask if we can go outside, I’m going to say yes,” he said. “It would be hypocritical not to say yes.”

Growing up and learning outdoors

Morrison can’t recall a time when he didn’t enjoy going outside. From playing as a child to an Outward Bound trip in the Pisgah National Forest during college, he was captivated by adventures in the great outdoors. 

This translated into Morrison’s life after college when he began a career as a middle school teacher that lasted 11 years. 

“I did not like spending all day inside as a teacher, so I would take students outside,” he said.

Morrison took on projects such as setting up a running track for students and building a school garden. After receiving his Ph.D from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, he joined Elon’s faculty in 2013, where he has spent the past five years implementing environmental education initiatives on campus. Among them, he started the environmental education minor, which is wrapping up its first year on campus. 

Environmental education: an old movement with new meaning

Morrison has studied environmental education throughout his college career and continues to research it as a professor at Elon. 

As a movement, the roots of environmental education trace back to the early 1800s, marked by famous literary works such as Ralph Waldo Emerson’s Nature and Henry David Thoreau’s Walden

“In 1970 in the U.S. there was the first Earth day, and that ushered in this environmental education movement,” Morrison said. “Since then, it’s been an interdisciplinary push to educate kids about the environment, change their attitudes, their perceptions, the knowledge and skills they have, and their ability to take action.” 

Morrison says that with the rise of technology, many children are now growing up with nature deficit disorder, a term coined by author Richard Louv in his book Last Child in the Woods, attributing behavioral problems of children to a lack of exposure to outdoor environments. 

Morrison believes that taking lessons outside is a good opportunity for teachers to step away from technology and imagine their curriculum in new, innovative ways.

“A lot of times teachers rely on technology too much that doesn't enhance learning in new and different ways. It’s really just a means of pacifying children and getting them quiet. I don’t think that’s an effective use of technology,” he said.  

Forest classrooms on college campuses

While Morrison says environmental education is most commonly utilized when teaching elementary students, many subjects can be applied outside even at the college level. 

“As students get older, there’s actually lots of concepts that exist outside. There’s math everywhere, there’s literacy everywhere,” he said.

In fact, a study completed in 2016 at California Polytechnic State University showed that the more green spaces a college campus has, the higher its retention and graduation rates

Elon University was designated as a botanical garden in 2005, marking the university a model for environmental stewardship and conservation. Morrison urges more professors at Elon to take advantage of the campus landscape by bringing their lessons outside. 

“If you have clipboards, if you have portable whiteboards, the same kind of learning–writing, solving problems–can happen outside,” he said. “Some things you might just have to bring outside in a different kind of way.” 

Community outreach, outdoors 

Morrison doesn’t just hope to see environmental education happen more on Elon’s campus, but also in the community. This is a project he’s already tackling at Eastlawn Elementary which is a Title One school, meaning it has a high number of students from low-income families.

Last year, the school received a Teacher Creativity Grant from Impact Alamance and Healthy Alamance through the Teacher Leadership Academy to build a garden. Morrison was enlisted to teach professional development workshops to teachers, implement their plans for the garden and give teachers the skills to use it in their lesson plans.

“Oftentimes when you talk to teachers about why they don’t take students outside, they feel like it’s incompatible with the work they’re supposed to be doing,” he said. “This breaks down that idea, ‘I can’t go out there because that’s not where learning happens, learning happens inside.’ Well, actually no, learning happens outside.” 

Not only is the garden being used to host an after school garden club and in-class curriculum, but the school also has plans for students to be able to keep some of the produce, as many of them struggle with food insecurity at home. 

Fourth grader and garden club member Leslie Navarro enjoys working in the garden because of the different environment it offers from the typical classroom. 

“When you’re learning, you can just relax because you’re not just sitting inside,” she said. 

Morrison’s student, senior Samantha Perry, is completing a human services internship at the school as a coordinator for the Eastlawn Schoolyard Garden. After spending just a semester with the elementary students, she says she can already notice the impact outdoor education in the garden is having on them. 

“There’s this kid who’s in fifth grade, and he was telling me, ‘This garden we started, we're gonna pass it down through the generations,” she said. “He wants to be a preschool teacher and work in the garden when he graduates from high school.”

While Perry is wrapping up her internship at Eastlawn Elementary and preparing to graduate this month, Morrison plans to work with the Eastlawn garden for the next two years. He also plans to continuing environmental initiatives on Elon’s campus, which he says the university has supported. He says environmental education is all about getting back to basics, something he believes everyone can agree on. 

“I think it’s pretty much shared knowledge that being outside is good, that it’s positive. People are concerned about the future of humanity broadly,” he said. “But children in particular, that they’re not cultivating the mind of values that are needed to protect the environment for future generations. There’s a lot of positivity around it and I’m glad more and more students are finding out.” 

While Morrison teaches environmental courses specifically for education and environmental studies students, he says he is open to taking any class at Elon outside for a workshop to see how environmental education can apply to what their learning.