As I prepare to launch back into full-speed blogging, I realize I’ve got a few loose ends to tie up. One of those is the Last Child in the Woods Read Along. I’ve really enjoyed going on our many summer adventures with the wisdom of this book mulling about in my mind. I’ve been able to see experiences in a different light, pay more attention, and try not to take things for granted.
It’s interesting that as my own children are heading back to school now, we arrive at Part 5, which discusses the potential for integrating nature into education. In this chapter, Louv cites many great examples where schools are visiting nearby natural landmarks as well as incorporating natural ecosystems in their own campus landscapes and gathering data to be used across multiple disciplines. Parks, rivers, and greenhouses all become sources of input for applying science, math, even the arts.
As has been a consistent theme in this book, Louv points out that we, as parents and teachers, are often anxious to educate our children about rain forests and exotic animals, but we mistakenly assume they already know about the plants and animals that coexist with them in their very own ecosystems. Perhaps that’s the irony, but also the good news. It doesn’t take grand projects. Kids don’t need expensive excursions across the globe to build their natural intelligence. They — and their schools — can start in their own back yards. Literally.
As Louv talks about schools that have worked to incorporate nature onto their own school grounds, he notes that the projects often begin on a very small and manageable scale. Butterfly gardens, bird feeders, native plants, or simply one more tree. But like any effort to turn learning objectives into learning experiences, these small tweaks can have a big impact.
I loved the tips Mary Rivkin, of the University of Maryland, gave for creating natural spaces for kids:
“Dirt and sand must be for digging as well as planting….Some plants must be for picking. Seeing such things is only part of learning about them. Touching, tasting, smelling, and pulling apart are also vital. Shrubs and trees for climbing are the real thing….”
When considering nature in the scheme of healthy child development, the natural components of a back yard or a school yard should not be thought of in a purely aesthetic way. It’s not just how it looks, it’s how it can be used, as Rivkin explained. Though, sadly, it’s that natural, healthy need to pull, climb, taste, and touch that too often keeps nature out of reach for many kids — particularly at school.
Part 6 addresses the inherent risk, and consequential liability that comes with the ruggedness of nature. Sometimes kids fall. Sometimes bones break. And sometimes, parents sue.
Our culture has become so litigious that, in an effort to remove risk, we are too often removing access to nature. Or even nature itself.
Neighbors, afraid of suit, close off trails and paths that run through their properties. Schools, avoiding liabilities, prohibit climbing trees and block access by trimming back low-reaching limbs. And in one county in Florida, they even ban running. That’s right. Running.
Thanks to the county’s safety director “no running” signs were posted at 137 elementary schools. On the playgrounds. All in the name of preventing injury, or more to the point, preventing lawsuits.
But this whole compulsion to avoid risk of any magnitude reminds me of the research I read about while writing Is There Danger in Play or More in Its Absence?
Studies have shown that as American children have decreased the amount of active play they take part in (which arguably makes them more safe) the incidence of psychopathology has increased markedly. So while we’re keeping kids physically safe we may actually be putting them in psychological jeopardy.
Some play researchers, like Peter Gray, explains the correlation with a very simple association. Play makes kids happy. Its absence or restriction makes them sad.
Others point out that the risky play we keep trying to “protect” kids from, actually mirrors a very effective type of behavioral therapy that mediates anxiety. Consequently, without risky play kids end up suffering more frequently from anxiety.
The therapy angle makes sense as you read Part 5. Study after study cites the benefits of outdoor programs like nature education, wilderness adventure programs, and camps for children with disabilities. We’re talking about positive changes to things like self-esteem, body image, autonomy, confidence, and even behavior. Nature can be a powerful partner in therapy.
So how can you make sure your kids get a healthy dose?
I’d love to hear how you incorporate nature into your family’s daily activities, and/or how your school brings nature to life as part of your educational program!
What else got you thinking in Chapters 5 and 6?
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Start the read along at Part 1!