Nature is a tool to get children to experience themselves. Climbing a tree helps you learn how to take responsibility for yourself, and how to measure risk. Falling out of a tree is a very good lesson in risk and reward.
Julia Ryan, in her Atlantic Monthly article, Nature Is a Powerful Teacher: The Educational Value of Going Outside, shares the impact of the Boston Schoolyard Initiative that transformed parking lots into green spaces in numerous urban schools with no place for “nature play.”
The Schoolyard Initiative has reclaimed 130 acres of asphalt and reached more than 30,000 children in Boston. Principals claim the schoolyards have improved student behavior, promoted exercise, and improved relations with parents and the community.
The initiative provides many things to the schoolyard that kids can use to learn hands-on. From lab space, pulley systems to bugs and flower beds, the outdoor spaces have become integral to the success of the students who come from diverse backgrounds.
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Outdoor spaces have other benefits. Teachers notice that students are more curious about learning after using the outdoor classroom and the space has helped students with social and emotional behavioral problems. For these students, it serves a “reset space” where they can decompress during the day.
Condi Ward of NAEYC.org says being surrounded by nature and natural items provides infinite benefits to children. Nature instills in everyone a sense of beauty and calmness. It exposes us to things that are alive and growing and promotes curiosity and exploration.
Children can learn about being gentle and respecting living things. Self-esteem can thrive outdoors because nature doesn’t judge people. At a time when bullying is prevalent — even in preschools — exposure to nature can help remind children that the world contains an infinite variety of things and all are important.
To observe nature requires patience and quiet watchfulness. Imagination comes into play as children create special places and use natural items to create stories and play. All senses become engaged when children interact with the natural world.
Impact on Ecology
Because children today have few opportunities for outdoor free play and regular contact with the natural world, one researcher refers to this loss of phenomenon as the “extinction of experience” — a practice that breeds apathy toward environmental concerns.
Society has become so far removed from its natural origins, it doesn’t associate its own continued existence with the stability and vitality of its natural resources. While the loss of children’s contact with the natural world negatively impacts their development and acquisition of knowledge, it also sets the stage for a continuing loss of the natural environment.
It’s not so much what children know about nature that’s important, as compared to what happens to them when they are in nature (by themselves). When kids stop going out into the natural world to play, it can affect not just their development as individuals, but impacts society as a whole.
Children who are connected to the natural world can positively shape the future. We know that forests and trees provide clean air, clean water and wood products we use every day. And water is important for all life on earth. Children need to be engaged in the outdoors and environmental issues to make these connections and to understand the importance of being good stewards of the earth.
Is there hope?
According to the North Carolina State University College of Design (www.naturalearning.org), school systems that embrace this concept typically:
▪ Start early and continue through secondary school. The earlier children develop a sense of respect and caring for the natural environment (optimally between ages 4-7), the greater the chance for developing this attitude.
▪ Create outdoor classrooms. Outdoor classrooms and other forms of nature-based experiential education support significant student gains in social studies, science, language arts and math. Proximity to, views of and daily exposure to natural settings increases children’s ability to focus and enhances cognitive abilities
▪ Provide careful and appropriate use of animals in the classroom, one of the best ways to foster empathy for nature in early childhood. Animals can be an endless source of amazement for children and can foster a caring attitude and sense of responsibility toward living things.
▪ Consider playground transformations. There is a growing movement to transform the playground design from barren areas of foam or wood chips with manufactured equipment into naturalized environments for children’s play, exploration and discovery. Studies of children in schoolyards found that children engage in more creative forms of play in the green areas.
Such naturalized playgrounds may include abundant amounts of vegetation and trees, animals (ponds, butterfly gardens, insects), sand, diversity of color, natural places to sit on or against, hiding spots, equipment that can be modified.
In 2013, The Guardian featured an article about filmmaker David Bond, who spent two years studying the declining role of nature in children’s lives. He recently released a documentary called Project Wild Thing. He says the wake-up call came when he taped a camera to his 6-year-old daughter’s head and recorded the time that she devoted to different activities: her days were dominated by playing indoors at school, car rides and playing inside at home. She spent just 4 percent of her time outside. It’s a great film.
In the United States, the nature deficit disorder paradigm is making headway. People are noticing that kids who are physically active outdoors are more critically challenged and have more opportunities to build their self confidence and self esteem — with the environment around them. There is evidence to suggest that the growing physical and mental disabilities being seen in kids are related to this reduction in experiential connection to nature.
In the classroom there can never be too much nature. Plants, animals, fossils, shells, sponges, aquariums. The possibilities are endless. Nature is the antidote to the fast-paced, stressful world in which many young children live.
Darlene Maxwell, in her article The Importance of Getting Young Children Out into Nature, lists some great things parents can do to get back outdoors:
▪ Provide unstructured time outdoors. Plan to be unplanned.
▪ Create outdoor memories — allow them the opportunity of exploring the natural world.
▪ Let your child play, relax, unwind. It fosters thinking, creativity, love and learning.
▪ Let your child see you — parents, teachers — modeling enjoyment of, comfort with and respect for nature.
▪ Let your child play in all sorts of weather. Dance in the rain, catch it in your mouth, splash in the puddles. If there is a thunderstorm, sit safely on the porch and be amazed by the lightning and count the seconds between the lightning and thunder. If you get the chance to see autumn leaves, count the colors, look at the shapes of the leaves. In winter, catch snowflakes.
▪ Hang a bird feeder and watch the different birds that come. Listen to their bird calls.
A cautionary note — this growing awareness of the need for more outdoor play time can lead to nature or outdoor time becoming another programmed activity — like swimming or music lessons. Nature shouldn’t be something you need to do and get it over with.
Children should lose themselves in it.
Laurie Futterman chairs the science department and teaches gifted middle school science at David Lawrence Jr. K-8 Center. She has three children and lives in North Miami.