The Earth Education Approach

An earth adventure is a unique type of self-guided nature experience based on an earth education approach. This section explains this approach for those who want to go a bit deeper and become better leaders and educators.

The earth adventure format relies on the components of earth education as described in Earth Education… A New Beginning by Steve Van Matre. We will use these components, called the what’s, why’s and ways of earth education, to help you understand the earth adventure format.

“Earth Education is the process of helping people to live more harmoniously and joyously with the natural world.”

Institute for Earth Education

This unique educational approach dates back to the 1970s and a network of educators spearheaded by Steve Van Matre. It grew out of dissatisfaction with the lack of focus and definition for “environmental education”. They were also concerned with the frequent tendency for environmental education materials to communicate pro-development and pro-consumption messages.

Earth education has developed as an alternative approach with the focus on providing integrated experiential programs. It emphasizes that major changes in lifestyles and institutions are required to meaningfully address environmental problems. The non-profit Institute for Earth Education is an international association of earth educators with branches in North America, Europe and Australia.

What is Earth Education?

There are three interconnected elements of an earth adventure that are drawn directly from earth education (Earth Education…, Chap. 4).


Earth educators believe it is critical for people to develop a deep connection to the earth and all of its life if we are to have the motivation to change our ways. To do that, we need to get out in nature, experience beauty and discover the wonder in other forms of life. That’s why an earth adventure invites you to experience nature with all of your senses. Earth adventures focus on the feelings.

“What a joy it is to feel the soft springy earth under my feet once more, to follow grassy roads that lead to ferny brooks where I can bathe my fingers in a cataract of rippling notes.”

– Helen Keller


Earth educators believe that everyone needs to understand the basic ecological concepts that govern our natural communities. This knowledge is essential to helping people to change their lifestyles to live in a sustainable manner. That’s why we have an Earthworks box in every earth adventure that connects your trail experiences to a “big picture” ecological concept. Our definition of the concepts is drawn from SunshipTM Earth, a prominent earth education program that is run every other summer in Nova Scotia by the Halifax Adventure Earth Centre. Formal earth education programs, facilitated by trained leaders, go beyond an earth adventure to include specific experiential activities that teach key ecological concepts.


Earth education aims to help people change their lifestyles to live in greater harmony with the earth. That’s why we have Earth Step boxes defined in every earth adventure. Take the earth steps to heart and carry the feelings and understandings you experience on the trail back to your daily lives. Let them nudge you as a family or group towards action. We hope you’ll encourage each other and work together to tread more lightly on the earth.

The Why’s of Earth Education

There are three underlying reasons why earth educators are committed to this work (See Earth Education…, Chap. 3), and they are implicit in the design of an earth adventure.


Earth educators believe life on the planet is in trouble due to our actions. We have to help people change their lifestyles.


There is more to it than overcoming the problems. We also believe that folks “with deeper feelings and broader understandings for the earth as a vessel of life are wiser, happier and healthier” (Earth Education…, p. 87). There are many rewards in these experiences. People can have fun, discover meaning and wonder in their lives, and find friends and support. That’s why an earth adventure places particular emphasis on families spending time together in nature having fun and nurturing each other.


Another reason for getting involved is that we need more advocates and role models working on behalf of all creatures to preserve healthy ecological systems. Among them are parents, grandparents, teachers, youth leaders, friends, co-workers and kids. This could be you!

The Ways of Earth Education

The following three “ways” of earth education provide a foundation for the design of each earth adventure (Earth Education…, Chap 5):


Earth educators believe in the need for “lots of rich, first-hand contact with the natural world” (Earth Education…, p. 88). That’s what an earth adventure is all about. The most important predictor of who becomes an environmental advocate and leader is past experience in nature as a kid. Each earth adventure deliberately calls upon multiple senses and invites you to directly appreciate the creatures around you.


Earth educators create “adventuresome magical learning experiences that focus on specific outcomes” (Earth Education…, p. 88). That is why we’ve built each trail around one focus, or ‘storyline’. This enables you to have an integrated experience that flows from one stop to the next, whether you are a ‘sunlight detective’ or a ‘deer trying to survive’. The storyline draws you into the adventure and gives you a focus for adding your creativity. There are a lot more possibilities for being a deer on the Long Lake trail than what is suggested. Invent and create with the help of the storyline. But remember to keep the overall ‘what’s’ of earth education in mind—feeling, understanding and processing. The detective storyline is meant to encourage discovery and fun in nature, rather than to just entice you into the world of Sherlock Holmes.

You’ve also likely noted the detail with which we have defined activities in precise spots using specific trail tools. That’s part of the emphasis on structuring as well. These precise instructions get you into a position where you can discover the feelings and understandings for yourselves. For example, most folks hold a magnifying lens at waist height to focus on an object of interest. But the experience is greatly “magnified” if you hold it right up to your eye and zoom your head down right next to the object. Try it. You’ll see that the small but important difference in approach makes a big difference in what you experience.

Try to follow the instructions precisely when you are doing an activity. They are specific because we have done a lot of pilot testing to identify the conditions that create the best experience. If you find alternative ways that work better, send us feedback. We want to improve and maximize the chances for fun and learning on the adventures.

Many of the ideas behind the nature exploration activities at trail stops are footnoted and are drawn from Earthwalks and SunshipTM Earth, although the context, description and applications for the ideas are very different. An earthwalk is a flowing sequence of activities that enables you to experience nature in a fun and creative way. The Earthwalks book is a great resource if you want to create and lead a dynamic nature experience with a group in your setting. It describes a range of feeling-based activities in detail.


To appreciate our relationship with nature, we need time alone in natural settings. That’s a key “way” in earth education. That’s why we’ve built quiet times into each adventure. The Adventure Journal is an important means to encourage reflection, for kids and adults as well. Take these quiet times, plus other opportunities along the trail, to sit and absorb the beauty and wonder around you. There is nothing that can rival watching the waves at Crystal Crescent or sitting beneath a huge tree in Hemlock Ravine on a beautiful day. It is good for the spirit.

Earth Education Leadership

The How to Lead Trails section gives key tips for leading an earth adventure, but it just touches the surface of a deeper educational process that goes far beyond what we can describe here. Learning more about this process can be extremely rewarding for those so inclined.

Where can you start? Check out the “ways” and the rationale behind them in Earth Education… A New Beginning. Of course, practical leadership experience and hands-on training are the most powerful ways to learn. The Reconnecting with Nature Leadership workshops offered across the province each year by Hike Nova Scotia and sponsored by the Nova Scotia Department of Communities Culture and Heritage are a great way to gain skills and understanding about working with kids and youth in nature. You could also give a call to the Halifax Adventure Earth Centre to learn about what they do (902 490- 4539). You may be able to visit or participate in one of their programs involving children or youth.

“Do not try to satisfy your vanity by teaching a great many things. Awaken people’s curiosity. It is enough to open minds; do not overload them. If there is some good inflammable stuff, it will catch fire.”

– Anatole France
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