Published in February 2007 issue of School-Age NOTES, Vol. XXVII #6
For centuries children have gravitated to play in the outdoor world. Years ago children's lives were surrounded by woods, fields, streams and ponds. My brother and I grew up in a small mid-Western town in the fifties where you went outside to play in the woods in the morning and returned home, only at necessary times, such as lunchtime, dinnertime or bedtime to co-mingle, ever so briefly with the adults in the family. We spent hours alone in the woods climbing trees, gathering leaves, building forts and collecting bugs. By the 1970's a child's world began to shrink as vacant lots, greenways and woods gave way to urbanization.
At the same time that the natural world seem to be shrinking, children were introduced to a variety of leisure time activities to fill their time indoors. Computers, televisions and organized sports have stepped in to fill the void. Children of today have limited physical boundaries and far fewer opportunities for free play in the natural world. These facts have had a tremendous effect on children's health and well-being. Childhood obesity and asthma are now prevalent in many communities.
Children are beginning to lose touch with the natural world. All of this is happening at a time when child psychologist, Howard Gardner, has discovered the in-born tendency of some children to read the natural world. In fact, this naturalistic intelligence has been added to his theory of multiple intelligences. Gardner's work has demonstrated that children come with a variety of abilities that need to be stimulated in order for the child to develop more fully. In today's school age programs, how are we going to provide for these rich experiences that stimulate all the intelligences, including the ability to read and understand the natural world?
A relatively new discipline, eco-psychology, suggests that humans are genetically programmed by evolution with an affinity for the natural world. This concept is known as biophilia. I always tell teachers that if you don't want to look at this concept from a scientific perspective then try the religious perspective. In almost every religion, including indigenous ones, man and woman were created in nature. There is a reason for this. We, meaning us humans, are destined to remain in close contact with Mother Earth. What the research also tells us is that if we humans don't have enough contact with nature, we are in danger of developing what is called biophobia or a fear of outdoor places.
For children's natural inclination of biophilia to develop and for children to become stewards of the earth, they must be given developmentally appropriate opportunities to learn about the natural world. This includes developmentally appropriate contact with nature. For primary and early grade school children these opportunities afford children the ability to explore and experience the surrounding wild and semi-wild world found in children's neighborhoods and communities.
School age programs run in a variety of settings, therefore access to the natural world can be as varied to walk outdoors or if you are truly lucky, a fully naturalized outdoor play area. Some programs may have access to transportation to a naturalized area, others may need to be more creative in bringing nature indoors or nature-lovers in to visit your program. City parks, greenways, open fields, nature centers and naturalized school grounds can offer children the daily benefits of direct experiences with nature-the motivation to explore, discover and learn about their world and to engage in health providing physical activity.
Get to know your neighborhood flora and fauna. Go outdoors in all seasons. Model a curiosity and respect for the natural world. Children come equipped with their built in curiosity, so support this natural tendency by creating some exploration backpacks to include with your first aid kits when outdoors. Items to include in the backpack are pencils and markers for sketching and journaling, paper bags, homemade bug nets, simple nature identification books, art materials for rubbings, small digging tools such as old spoons, magnifying glasses, cameras and video recorders.
Lest you think that all of this sounds incredibly simple, it really is! When interviewing school-age children about what they like to do outside, both our company and other designers, have found that children are longing for unstructured free time to explore their surroundings. School agers answers to “What Are Your Favorite Things to Do Outside”, can be categorized as playing in dirt/sand, being quiet, walking, exploring for bugs, games and climbing.
A particular favorite activity of school age children is playing in the snow. Children want and need to be exposed to the natural world in all four seasons. If dressed properly, children don't mind the cold. Just remember to keep them hydrated in both the cold and hot weather. Think of the solution to the challenge of getting children outside in the cold winter weather as just needing to find the right clothing! Local clothing banks and second hand stores can be a resource if children need additional hats, mittens, scarfs or coats.
While children really like unstructured play in the natural world, perhaps you will feel better prepared if you have activities planned in the beginning to help fill the time. Once children become more accustomed to being outside they can help create their own activities. The following resources are all very inexpensive and include lesson plans if needed on how to connect children to the natural world.
The National Wildlife Federation School Yard Habitat program, www.nwf.org/schoolyard and the Evergreen Foundation School Yard program in Canada, www.evergreen.ca/en/lg/lg.html, have great written resources and curriculum materials on naturalized schoolyards. Project Learning Tree, www.plt.org, Project WILD, www.projectwild.org, and Project WET, www.projectwet.org, provide training free for professionals working with children. School Age Notes catalog includes great resources as well, www.SchoolAgeNotes.com.
Join the national movement Hooked on Nature, www.hookedonnature.org, to find others who are interested in this topic in your own community. Share with parents, the National Arbor Day Foundation Kids Explore Club at www.arborday.org, the US Forest Service website, www.fs.fed.us/kids or and the Green Hour, www.greenhour.blogspot.com, website to launch in March 2007 for parents looking for things to do outdoors with their children.
Above all, do what you can to develop your own relationship with nature so that you can lead by example. Children are waiting for you to help them explore the natural world.
Vicki L. Stoecklin is the Education & Child Development Director at White Hutchinson Leisure & Learning Group, a company that specializes in designing environments for children both indoors and outdoors. You can download additional articles on their web-site at www.whitehutchinson.com/children or sign up for their free e-newsletter on Children's Environments.