Tuesday, May 5, 2009

Nature as an Educational Tool

Cheryl Charles, Ph.D., is co-chair of the Education for Sustainable Development Working Group of the Commission on Education and Communication, World Conservation Union (IUCN-CEC). She and Richard Louv (“Last Child in the Woods”) created the Children & Nature Network (C&NN) to encourage and support the effort to reconnect children with nature. C&NN provides news, research, and a network of people and groups dedicated to children's health and well-being through nature. I recently had the pleasure of interviewing Dr. Charles on her views of the No Child Left Inside initiative as it relates to education.

How can schools foster a reverence for nature in their students?

The first way is to open the door and go outside! Bring classrooms outside and get into nature. Bring natural materials in the classroom. Providing lessons in nature gives students a context and frame of reference that makes learning possible because it stops being abstract. Young children are not yet abstract thinkers. It is a way to fascinate and engage them and it fosters a sense of love, respect, and empathy.

How can teachers (even in a city setting) use nature as a tool to teach?

Grow a garden together. Provide plenty of natural spaces and places for exploration, like logs, boulders, places to dig and water to play in. Let the kids get grubby! Allow time outside for recess and natural exploration. Learning takes place outside too.

How do Waldorf Schools fit with your mission for No Child Left Inside?

Waldorf Schools have a philosophical commitment to the cognitive, spiritual and physical well-being of their students. They bring natural materials into the classrooms and have not only daily recess time to play, but daily walks to parks or in natural settings.

Waldorf Schools choose not to label children with behavioral acronyms like ADD or ADHD and instead help the students learn in the way that is natural to them. They also are famous for not having a lot of problems with attention and behavioral issues. Can you comment on that?

Labels are destructive and schools should learn to greet the students where they are, at their current capability level. Evidence shows again and again that outdoor time has the affect of calming people and increasing their ability to focus and concentrate. Even bullying instances are reduced when children have access to a variety of natural spaces and places to explore.

What kinds of schools incorporate a physical and spiritual relationship with nature within their curriculum?

There are some private schools and charter schools that are doing a better job of providing natural settings and time for natural exploration, play and study. Typically public schools limit exposure to nature on the whole. There is no vegetation, no school gardens, no habitats, even no recess. Teachers are under pressure to get better test scores. The teachers could use the mental health benefits that nature provides too.

When exploring school options for their children, parents can look for evidence of natural spaces that promote play and exploration. There should be more than cement to play on.

Why has today's culture rejected children's exposure to nature and has instead encouraged more reliance on technology, like the internet, ipods, TV, video games, etc?

Nowadays there is so much more access to the electronic umbilica, as I like to call it. Parents are concerned about safety so time outside has been limited and children have come inside to play. Sometimes life style changes have made being outside difficult, like lack of sidewalks to ride bikes or fewer parks to play in. There are a variety of factors that have combined to create these accumulated unintended consequences, like obesity, diabetes, depression, attention and behavioral problems.

How can parents incorporate "nature therapy" as a means for providing balance in their children’s lives?

Birth to age 12 is a critical time for children to develop a passion for nature and the environment. Typically it is accomplished when someone frequently shares what they consider a special place: a fishing pond, a campsite, etc. The child feels valued that they get to share this with the adult and it creates similar feelings of reverence for nature.

Giving kids direct experience in the natural world provides balance and positive effects on physical and mental health. Take turns with a partner or a neighbor to walk kids to and from school, rather than drive. Create a new neighborhood watch that is all about providing kids sunshine and fresh air to play safely in. Start or join a Nature Club (there are ways to do this through C&NN). Let kids see you having fun too. Make outside time family time.

Younger children seem to "play" outside more than teenagers. How can we engage and instill in older children a love for nature and activities?

Teens need to do things with their peer group and they like to take risks. Programs like Outward Bound see this and meet those needs in an outdoor setting with great effect. Just get them outside! Kids like the community service aspect, not just menial jobs but allow them to do projects like habitat restoration. It gives them confidence and leadership and pride. Let them go on over-night camping trips. Allow free-range play and don’t structure everything.

1 comment:

  1. Great interview, Tracy! I firmly believe that nature is the best teacher and therapist any of us will ever have.

    Cheers- Bethe