Teach Your Children Well

Colette McDonald

Colette is a senior at SUNY-ESF with a major in environmental policy, planning, and law and a minor in environmental writing and rhetoric. She is the president of the Student Environmental Education Coalition (SEEC) and loves teaching kids about environmental issues, specifically issues pertaining to food and health. In the future, she sees herself working in local government and enjoying her two corgis, tiny house, and functional homestead.

“Unfortunately, we may have been among the last to feel the earth between our toes, to lie beneath the sun-rayed canopy, and remember to ‘be home before dark.'”

Many of us can remember ourselves as kids spending hours playing in the backyard, visiting the nearby park, building snowmen, getting lost exploring the woods beyond our neighborhood, or splashing in a creek. Unfortunately, we may have been among the last to feel the earth between our toes, to lie beneath the sun-rayed canopy, and remember to “be home before dark.” We experienced nature on a daily basis as part of our playtime, a custom that expanded our minds and stimulated our imaginations. Today’s children, however, primarily find their entertainment inside where imagination reaches only as far as the Wi-Fi signal.

Today’s children spend significantly less time playing outdoors and more time in front of the TV and computer screen. The Alliance for Childhood reported that, “Compared to the 1990s, children now spend 50 percent less time in unstructured outdoor activities. Children ages 10 to 16 now spend, on average, only 12.6 minutes per day in vigorous physical activity yet they spend an average of 10.4 waking hours each day relatively motionless.”

In an age when juvenile diabetes is at an all-time high, a third of the children in the U.S are overweight or obese and interest in science is drastically declining, a reintroduction to nature may be what children need to turn their physical and mental health around. North Carolina State University reported that connecting children with nature supports creativity and problem solving, improves nutrition and eyesight, helps develop social relationships, establishes self-discipline, and reduces stress and depression.

“Nature Deficit Disorder” has been diagnosed as the decline in outdoor activity displayed by today’s youth, resulting in a wide range of behavioral problems. The term was coined by author and co-founder of the Children & Nature Network, Richard Louv, in his book, “The Last Child in the Woods: Saving Our Children From Nature-Deficit Disorder.” Throughout his book, Louv describes the substantial effects that nature can have on a child’s personality as well as their schoolwork. He says, “When truly present in nature, we do use all our senses at the same time, which is the optimum state of learning. If using nature as a classroom were utilized in the majority of today’s curriculum, it is estimated that students would be able to grasp the material at a much higher rate, attention to the material would increase substantially, and test scores would have a significant increase overall.

Research seems to bear out Louv’s claim. At the Human-Environment Research Laboratory at the University of Illinois, researchers discovered that children as young as five show a significant reduction in the symptoms of attention deficit/hyperactivity disorder when they are engaged with nature. In a study done at the university, researchers estimated that about two million school-aged children in the U.S. have ADHD. The study tracked 400 kids in the United States, in rural, suburban, and urban settings. Their parents answered questions about how their children behave when participating in a wide range of activities. Activities were performed inside, outside in areas without much greenery (such as parking lots), and in “greener” spots like parks, backyards, and tree-lined streets. The results showed kids had fewer ADHD symptoms after spending time in nature. Areas evaluated by the questionnaire included childrens’ ability to remain focused on unappealing tasks, complete tasks, listen and follow directions, and resist distractions. Implementing outdoor education, studying nature in the classroom, or even viewing the outdoors through a window would improve these students’ attention disorders, especially at a young age.

This all seems positive, yet there are impediments to encouraging such activities. Since the 2001 passage of the No Child Left Behind Act, many schools have struggled to find ways to meet the act’s rigorous assessment standards. One way in which schools found more time for academics is by cutting out physical education classes and recess. For struggling students, time allotted for physical activity is often reduced further as a punishment for poor classroom behavior or for extra tutoring time. The irony is that this may result in unrest in the classrooms and promote a dangerous sedentary lifestyle. Thirty-one percent of children in the U.S are considered obese and 80 percent of children who are obese between the ages of 10 and 15 remain obese at age 25. Children who do not participate in physical exercise are at greater risk of developing osteoporosis, cardiovascular disease, Type 2 diabetes and liver problems later in life. Health experts, educators, and parents express concern that cutting recess will further contribute to weight and health problems without improving academic performance.

The National Association for Sport and Physical Education recommends that students get at least 20 minutes of recess time every day. By encouraging outdoor activity schools could better meet this recommendation and the No Child Left Behind’s standards, as well as advance environmental care. Children who are engaged with the environment are more likely to develop a conservation ethic, volunteer, recycle, participate in outdoor recreation as an adult, and work in natural resources-related professions. In turn they tend to develop into healthier, happier, and more creative adults who are more productive with their day, incorporate exercise into their lives regularly, and open their minds to a more global perspective. By connecting with the environment as a child, students expand their cognitive ability, become more aware of their surroundings, and better formulate solutions to pressing environmental issues. Considering many of today’s global issues pertain to environmental distress, the future of humanity and the planet lies in the hands of the generations to come. Connecting students with nature increases the probability that global environmental issues will be resolved.

Incorporating nature into education is beneficial in many ways. Playtime outside stimulates the mind, gets kids up and moving, and allows them to form a lasting bond with nature. Twenty minutes of free play a day makes a huge difference. It’s time again to explore the woods, dig for worms, and build a garden. It’s time for today’s youth to wake up and smell the roses, and maybe even pick a few while they’re out there.


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