Nature Deficit Disorder. Leave No Child Inside. De-natured Childhood. Biophilia vs. biophobia. What reaction do you have from these phrases and slogans?
I know that children (and adults) are spending less time outside. Headlines regularly proclaim increasing hours screen time in all age groups. For me, the phrases above provide a framework to justify a focus on outdoor play. They are backed up with serious research that proves that children need to play, adventure, relax, and learn in natural spaces to develop into healthy whole adults.
Richard Louv has been a champion for the Children and Nature cause. In a recent article in the Orion Magazine, he articulated many of his main points. The title alone summarizes his message: Leave No Child Inside: The growing movement to reconnect children and nature, and to battle “nature deficit disorder”. Weaving stories around research-backed facts, Louv highlights the many advantages of spending time outside. Though physical health is one of the most obvious benefits, the more subtle ones add up into a very long list: improved cognitive functioning and development, increased self esteem, more motivation, improved problem solving, encouragement of inventiveness and creativity, cooperation, increased attention spans, and psychological well-being.
In our after school program, we’ve been going into a forest twice a week. Located right next to the playground, the forest is an unbelievable resource for our town and school community. Upon entering the woods, the temperature drops noticeably. The sounds change – whispering leaves and the occasional bird chirp blocks any outside noises from coming in. Our foot steps are quiet on the soft needle-carpeted forest floor. The smell of moist leaves, moss, and bark filters into our noses.
As we work, explore, and play in the forest as a group, we encounter a surprising number situations that translate directly to developing life skills. The students have tweaked the guidelines that keep us safe, changed their actions and attitudes to stay at peace with neighboring forts, found fort sites near more natural resources (sticks and stones), and decided whether or not to work independently or with a group. Though there have been plenty of conflicts to resolve, many of us have also found many moments of peace in the forest.
As an educator needing to engage a group of 20-30 students from kindergarden through sixth grade, the biggest advantage of natural space is that it meets our diverse interests and needs. We can all learn at our own pace, make observations at our level, and pick our preferred degree of activity in the forest. When asked what their favorite thing to do during our after school program, an overwhelming majority of students quickly said “building forts” or “going into the forest.”
Next week I’ll write more about our forest forts and fairy houses – how they’ve evolved, what we’ve discovered, and how these building sites draw us back to the forest week after week.