Researching AUM: Shelly Bowden creates naturalistic  classroom environments

Photo: Shelly Bowden with young students at the AUM Early Learning Center. 

Perhaps Shelly Bowden was destined to have a career in teaching.

“Before becoming a college professor, I taught kindergarten for 14 years,” said Bowden, a professor in the Auburn University at Montgomery Department Curriculum Instruction and Technology. “I followed in my mom’s footsteps as a kindergarten teacher – she taught for 35 years. Of my two sisters, one is a retired English professor from the University of Georgia while another taught high school Family and Consumer Sciences. Many teachers in our family!”

At Auburn Montgomery, Bowden uses her years as an experienced elementary school teacher to instruct AUM education students how to become good teachers and is particularly interested in the concept of researching the naturalistic classroom environment.

“This educational concept is framed by how teachers believe children learn,” she explained. “Young children learn through play. A naturalistic classroom environment reflects this belief with multisensory activity that promotes engagement in all subjects through hands-on learning.”

She illustrates with a recent article she authored describing how kids can learn by using just plain water to paint on outside brick walls or concrete.

“When children paint with water, they learn facts about water conservation, evaporation, etc.,” she said. “Besides, it’s just plain fun and clean up’s a snap!”

One of the more usual teaching activities Bowden has adopted may sound surprising.

“While teaching my graduate course ‘Methods of Teaching the Elementary Social Studies,’ the textbook suggested taking children to a cemetery,” she recalled. “This was not my first thought of a good thing to do!”

But now, she’s convinced such a field trip offers cab provide learning opportunities and takes her AUM students to a local cemetery and encourages them, when they become teachers, to take their students to provide teachable moments.

“Thanks to Montgomery’s Mary Anne Neeley, tour director of Oakwood Cemetery, I took my class to this cemetery for many years,” said Bowden. “With a safari hat on her head and megaphone held in her hand, Mary Ann shared historical, economics, and art facts one can find in a cemetery.”

Another current project with “Friends of South Walton Sea Turtles” involves elementary students in Walton County, Florida.

“We take the fifth graders to the beach to engage them to feel what it’s like to be a turtle and most important how and why we should protect sea turtles for conservation.”

Bowden has shared her research at education conferences in France, Jamaica, Hawaii, New York City, and many other locations.

As she begins her 38th year in Early Childhood Education, Bowden is disappointed to see that some schools have taken play out of their curriculum and suggests they should embrace a child’s work-play as a teaching tool.

“It is through play that children learn how to handle life situations,” she says.

Nick Thomas teaches at Auburn University at Montgomery ( and has written features, columns, and interviews for over 750 newspapers and magazines (