What do you think of when you hear or see the word amazing? How do you define the word? The Webster Dictionary defines amazing as “causing great surprise or sudden wonder.” Recently, I listened to a speaker tell the story of how her two boys, ages 3 and 5, find everything in their world AMAZING. From rocks the boys find in nature, to the tree branches the boys find in their yard. To the dead frog, they see alongside of the road, to the earthworm that floats up to the surface of the ground after it rains. The guest speaker colorfully spoke of how her two boys find tree branches so AMAZING, that there are times when tree branches have found their way in the boy’s beds at night. During my years as the Outdoor Classroom guide, many times parents have told me that their child has come home with acorns, rocks, fossils, beads, marbles, and yes, on more than one occasion an earthworm in his or her pocket. I am thankful that WFMS offers such an inspiration learning environment for our students.
Richard Louv, child advocacy expert and author of the Last Child in the Woods: Saving Our Children from Nature-Deficit Disorder, once wrote “An environment-based education movement- at all levels of education-will help students realize that school isn’t supposed to be a polite form of incarceration, but a portal to the wider world.” Throughout his book, Richard Louv points out the relationship between the lack of nature in the lives of today’s technology generation. He calls it “nature-deficit” and describes it as one of the most disturbing childhood trends. He continues on to discuss why nature is such a vital component to a child’s life.
Research states that as humans, we have an attraction for the natural world. When children spend most of their time indoors, they miss out. Problems related with a child’s disconnect from nature include familiar disorders: depression, obesity, and attention deficit disorder. Children who have direct access to nature are better learners. Exposure to nature has been shown to decrease stress and increase attention spans.
When a child is out in nature, all the senses get stimulated. He or she is enthralled in something bigger than themselves, rather than concentrating intently on one thing, such as a computer screen. Children are seeing, hearing, touching, even tasting. In nature, a child’s brain has the chance to refresh, so the next time he or she has to focus and pay attention, perhaps in class, they will do better.
But even if kids don’t have any of the specific issues such as the ones mentioned above, children who do not get out much, lack the sense of wonder that only nature can provide. I’ve allowed students to take their boots off in the outdoor classroom and walk barefoot in the grass who’ve never that that sort of experience. At first, they’re scared because its unfamiliar; but, then you I see them gain confidence and start exploring what is underneath them.
So what are the benefits to our outdoor classroom environment? First, children develop self-esteem. They take personal responsibility for themselves while cooperating with and respecting the needs of their fellow classmates. Our outdoor classroom environment allows children to appreciate and understand the world and the people around them. Children learn that they are the keepers of the environment for the future and that there is a correlation between them and their environment. The outdoor classroom allows for opportunities for children to problem solve and work on their team building skills. Finally, the outdoor classroom environment promotes personal health and well-being by allowing students to self-regulate themselves. Students learn that when they are cold outside they may need to wear their hat, gloves, jackets, etc.
What are some easy ways to experience nature with your child? The best thing you can do is to be enthusiastic about nature yourself. Go in your backyard. If you don’t have a well-manicured lawn or garden, that is ok. Allow for some uncultivated spots in your backyard for your child to dig in the dirt and find rocks and interesting weeds. Plant a vegetable garden and allow your child to plant the seeds and pick the vegetables. Even walking around your neighborhood can be a nature walk to your child. They can collect leaves, you can point out trees and shrubs (don’t worry if you don’t know the names), and show them the bugs and insects crawling along the curb. Let your child get down in the dirt so they can see at eye level the whole universe there. If you are worried about your child getting their clothes dirty, let it go! (That is why washing machines were invented) Nature is vital for mental stability. Nature isn’t the challenge; it’s the answer.
I encourage each of you to continue to allow your child to find their moments in nature to be AMAZED. Yes, there are risks outdoors, but there are far more psychological, physical and spiritual risks in allowing children to remain indoors. Children need to decide for themselves their own challenges, measure their own risk, take ownership, have their own adventures and learn from them. Rather than giving into fear, we need to allow for moments of child-like wonder and curiosity in nature.