Dr. Stephen R. Kellert of Yale University devotes a chapter to the subject of "Nature and Childhood Development." Combining his original research with well-documented references to the research of others, this chapter is a powerful synthesis of what we know, and what we do not know, about the importance of nature to children's healthy development. Kellert states, "Play in nature, particularly during the critical period of middle childhood, appears to be an especially important time for developing the capacities for creativity, problem-solving, and emotional and intellectual development." He includes research to indicate optimal learning opportunities at age-appropriate times and differentiates between indirect, vicarious, and direct experiences with nature — with the latter less and less available to children. He urges designers, developers, educators, political leaders and citizens throughout society to make changes in our modern built environments to provide children with positive contact with nature—where children live, play and learn.
This epidemic of keeping children inside and away from nature is also quickly becoming the norm in our public schools. With standardized testing, fast-paced curriculum, newly adapted "Common Core" requirements, children working "far below basic" in Language Arts (I hate to even use the word "arts" in this way because the manner in which we are teaching language, grammar, writing and so on is the farthest thing from "the Arts") By cramming children inside all day; sitting them at their desks in order to "teach them" by teachers' ignorant lecture-babble... Aren't we actually robbing them of the essential tools to help them grow,develop, problem-solve, empathize, create, think critically and understand each other and the world around them?
Amy Barra, an environmental specialist for the Montezuma Audubon Center wrote in an article for the The Finger Link Times:
Children who spend time in nature are shown to be happier and have higher critical thinking skills than their peers who have not had access to natural spaces. A research article published in 2004 by Francis Kuo Ph.D., and Andrea Taylor, Ph.D. showed that children who suffered from ADHD had reduced symptoms after a short 20-minute walk through a natural area. Students who are exposed to nature also achieve higher test scores in math, reading and writing than their non-nature-exposed peers. Children who play together in nature are less likely to take part in bullying behavior and instead are shown to develop more collaborative skills and will demonstrate respect for others. All of these benefits come from time spent exploring outdoors and connecting with the natural environment.Higher test scores? Less bullying? Collaboration skills? You'd think we'd be outside every fucking day for most of our academic time!!!! But no! We give 'em 10-20 minute recess, tell 'em to use the bathroom and get water, and then hurry them back inside to their seats, for more lectures and more "learning", all the while, reminding them to be quiet.
At the site where I'm teaching, there's a huge lawn and a beautiful corner area shaded by a couple of mighty oaks and other foliage. The children aren't allowed to venture to this corner of the lawn "because there's too many bees" So I'm told. (Actually, there aren't too many bees thanks to the
Roundup being sprayed.)
I took my students to the 'forbidden' lawn one afternoon, two days after the most welcoming rain left it a rich, vibrant shade of green. The sky was breathtaking and the clouds, plentiful. We had just read the book "It Looked Like Spilled Milk" and I thought it appropriate to lie on our backs, breathe in the fresh air and share a discussion about the various types of clouds (science, language arts), how they are made (science. For Katie, God), verbal discussion, (language arts, critical thinking, listening skills), counting the number of clouds, (math) and what each cloud formation looks like. (language arts, expanding the imagination, listening to and learning from peers)
We walked to the farthest corner. There were mustard colored dandelions and miniature daisies all around our shoes. I shared with them what little I knew about the healthy and healing properties of the dandelion root and we discussed how killing them with chemicals not only hurts them, but also goes in our water systems. When we got to the perfect spot to lie down, they all, except Layla and her best pal Arianna, went ballistic! Of the thirty kids that I was responsible for that afternoon, 28 flat-out refused!
"It's dirty, Ms. Fern."
"My mom doesn't want my clothes dirty."
"There's bees here."
"I'm allergic to bees."
"It's too wet."
"The sun's in my eyes."
Ms. Fern, I don't want to."
I ignored them, in a way that only a teacher knows how to do, and I proceeded to lie down
with the 2 girls and a small handful of "reluctants" who hesitantly decided to risk it.
We had our discussion, took deep 'yoga breaths', breathing the fresh mid-day air into our lungs and enjoyed ourselves before heading back to our room.
Layla spoke, "My mom and dad take me hiking in the Sierras a lot and sometimes we make bonfires at the beach. We also go camping a lot."
"We go to Arroyo Seco and play in the river" shared Arianna.
Well, there's the explanation.
The girls' parents must value the great outdoors and the connection we humans need to have with nature. Not surprising, these two are well-balanced, attentive in class, are able to problem solve, read above grade level...Oh sure, there's a number of reasons as to why these two excel besides Mother Nature, but certainly their experiences in the great outdoors contribute to their language development and their fearlessness about getting a grass stain on their pant legs.
You know, first graders are whiners. There, I said it.
It's actually, secretly, driving me nuts.
"Ms. Fern, she said mean things to me."
"Ms. Fern, he took cuts in line."
"Ms. Fern, my finger hurts."
"Ms. Fern, she won't be my friend."
I'm ready to snap at the end of the day. I pull all my tricks out of my hat: encouragement of problem-solving, conflict-resolution, class meetings, even humor. But there are days that I am at the edge of simply using good old-fashioned public humiliation.
On the whole, second graders have passed that stage in their development. Thank God half of my class has an element of maturity.
They are hilarious, though. The first graders.
One morning, one runs up to me, wearing her hot pink Hello Kitty winter gloves and holds up both her hands, 10 pink fingers open wide in my face. Well, 9 pink fingers. The middle finger, on the left hand, was all skin as it poked straight up through a hole in the glove. "Ms. Fern, I have a hole in my glove!" she innocently exclaimed as she (unknowingly) flipped me off.
So, I have 13 first graders and 17 second graders; a perfect, even number of fiery, kinetic energy balls.
If you've ever been in a room with thirty children, all under the age of 8, it's similar to one of those plasma globes, with electrical currents bouncing off the glass. Only noisy.
I'm stuck in the middle of this bold, spontaneous burst of fun. The truth?
It's not that bad. It's kinda growing on me. In fact, I'm sort of getting the hang of it again and I'm sure, that when this gig ends on March 7, I'll actually have it down.
Most likely, I'll even miss it a little.
"Ms. Fern? Why is your nose so red today?"
(Oh, Jasmine, it's just from the bottle of Cabernet Ms. Fern drank last night.)
~tpg (aka Ms. Fern)