“We’ve come to believe that being outside is not good for children’s health.”
Adults worry kids will catch cold, get sun-burned, bitten by a dog or tick, break a bone in an accident, become victims of “stranger danger,” or a thousand other adversities.
“We can try to protect kids from everything. But at what cost? Kids are spending up to 8 hours a day on digital media, contradicting their natural programming to learn the natural world.” Meaning: kids are hard-wired to become skilled at living in whatever bit of the eco-system is their home – the jungle, forest, seashore, desert. Human children evolved to thrive in nature, not in protected isolation like zoo animals.
David Sobel, senior faculty member at Antioch University in New Hampshire, specializes in “place-based education.” That just involves using wherever the kids are as a giant learning lab. Specifics in a moment.
Sobel spoke recently at Roger William Zoo, in a huge tent-created auditorium, packed to standing room only, in spite of pouring rain. Thrillingly, all manner of educators, politicians and agency staff were there to think about giving children back their childhoods.
Which starts by giving them back the outdoors.
After graduating from Williams College, Sobel went to England to train as British infant teacher, which in our terms means pre-school. He returned in the early 1970s to found the Harrisville School in New Hampshire.
He tells this story from those early days directing that school. A period of relentless rain had been driving his pre-schoolers stir crazy. The instant the rain stopped, kids burst outdoors to run around.
Rainwater was gushing out of a drainpipe, creating a “child-sized rivulet” that cut a path along a slope. Two boys took an interest in making a dam to divert and control the water’s flow. Other kids came along. Soon an large upper dam developed. Then subsidiary channels appeared, bringing water to a lower dam.
Sobel exclaims, “Suddenly it was a massive project. They argued about should they raise this dam, deepen this ditch? But they worked it out. They’d yell ‘Ten minutes to flood,’ warning they would let a dam go. So for the next 2 weeks, the curriculum was about mud, dirt, water and damming. It was a good example of kids descending into their wild selves, their animal selves. It was just old naturalistic play, such as kids do all over the world.”
Such as even Americans of a certain age used to do.
Now it’s called “place-based education.” As a principal writer and thinker on the subject, Sobel has devoted much of his career to helping people understand that the natural world holds enormous, compelling power for teaching kids science, among other things. Whatever bit of nature is close at hand is a fine start to a learning lab.
Bottom line: “We need to create the infrastructure so kids can do that.”
In agricultural times, students came in from the fields and cow-barns to learn the science behind what they knew from hands-on experience. I love the kit-based science promoted by the National Science Foundation because kits bring interesting natural experiences indoors. But at the end of the day, it’s still a bunch of stuff that comes out of a box, onto desks in a classroom.
Kits are not tidal estuaries, rivers, or green space begging to be explored. They’re prefabricated experience.
About 20 years ago, Sobel says, Germany started a “forest-kindergarten” movement, specifically to combat children’s alienation from nature. Sometimes called the “rain or shine” schools, kids were outside all or most of the day.
“Now they are doing this in Scandinavia. Some schools have a yurt or a green house, but some have no heating at all. Kids are oblivious.”
Furthermore, it makes them healthier. Sobel explains, “Outdoor pre-schools have lower rates of absenteeism and infectious diseases than regular ones.”
In fact, “over the last 10 years, researchers have found that physical activity outside produces better health, strength, flexibility and coordination. Contact with nature lowers stress, behavior disorder and anxiety.”
Apparently, even hospital studies show that if your window has a view of nature, you will heal better and faster than if your view is a parking lot or the building next door.
I love this: “Physicians are now prescribing time outdoors for ADD.”
Currently 9.5 percent of America’s kids are taking drugs for this condition. Yes, I’ve known a few kids brought back from total dysfunction with medication. But the drugs can have serious long-term side effects, and mostly what we’re doing is drugging kids’ wild, animal selves into submissive compliance. ADD drugs help perfectly healthy little energy dynamos tolerate the long periods of sitting at desks, often preparing for tests.
Since that’s the aspect of education we adults seem to care about.
But even on the subject of test scores, Sobel assures us that “place-based education improves academic achievement.”
So there it is: if you want healthier, smarter, more socially-adept, resilient kids, work with your community to make a cool, accessible place where kids can mess around with nature. The adults’ job is to be around, but always at a little distance. At that remove, adults’ can figure out how to feed kids’ natural hunger to know more about how to master whatever they’re doing.
Because that kind of learning you don’t forget the day after the test.
Julia Steiny is a freelance columnist whose work also regularly appears at GoLocalProv.com and GoLocalWorcester.com. She is the founding director of the Youth Restoration Project, a restorative-practices initiative, currently building a demonstration project in Central Falls, Rhode Island. She consults for schools and government initiatives, including regular work for The Providence Plan for whom she analyzes data. For more detail, see juliasteiny.com or contact her at email@example.com or c/o GoLocalProv, 44 Weybosset Street, Providence, RI 02903.