Want Your Kids to Get Into Harvard? Tell ‘em To Go Outside.
I once met an instructor who trains young people to become the pilots of cruise ships. He described the two kinds of students he encounters. One kind grew up mainly indoors, spending hours playing video games and working on computers. These students are quick to learn the ship’s electronics, a useful talent, the instructor explained. The other kind of student grew up spending a lot of time outdoors, often in nature. They, too, have a talent. “They actually know where the ship is.”
He wasn’t being cute. Recent studies of the human senses back that statement up. “We need people who have both ways of knowing the world,” he added. In “The Nature Principle,” I tell that story to describe what I call the “hybrid mind.” I make the case that one goal of modern education should be to encourage such flexible thinking. Is education moving in that direction? Some schools are, but too many are putting all their eggs on one computer chip.
Almost as an article of religious faith, school districts are flooding students with computers and other Internet-connected gadgets. Yet, as the New York Times reported on Sept. 3, 2011, “to many education experts, something is not adding up.” Schools are spending billions on technology “even as they cut budgets and lay off teachers, with little proof that this approach is improving basic learning.”
Few people would deny that digital skills are needed in an increasingly digital world, but even some promoters of educational technology are expressing reservations about the size of the investment compared to the available proof of success. Tom Vander Ark, former executive director for education at the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation and an education technology investor, admitted to the Times reporter, “The data is pretty weak. It’s very difficult when we’re pressed to come up with convincing data.”
In an online discussion last week, one educator described how her school “spent millions” on teaching technology, even as “the class sizes are growing. And our kids have 10 minutes of recess, gym once a week and no time outside.”
Meanwhile, long-proven approaches are given short shrift. Though educators have known for decades about the clear link between music education and better performance in math, In the Leave No Child Behind era, music programs were among the first to be cut from curricula. Similarly, more recent research has suggested time spent in more natural environments (whether it’s a park, a wilderness or a nature-based classroom or play space) stimulates the senses, improves the ability to learn, and helps students connect the dots of the world. Yet, in legislators’ eyes, recess, field trips, and nature experiences barely register.
Research in this area remains a frontier in the academic world, but evidence is growing. Schools that use outdoor classrooms and other forms of nature-based experiential education report significant student gains in social studies, science, language arts, and math.
Children are more likely to invent their own games in green play spaces rather than on flat playgrounds or playing fields. Green play spaces also suit a wider array of students and promote social inclusion, regardless of gender, race, class, or intellectual ability. One study found that so-called at-risk students in week-long outdoor camp settings scored significantly better on science testing than in the typical classroom. At the Human-Environment Research Laboratory at the University of Illinois, researchers have discovered that children as young as 5 show a significant reduction in the symptoms of attention deficit/hyperactivity disorder when they engaged with nature.
Cognitive and behavioral benefits accrue well beyond school boundaries. In inner-city housing projects in Chicago, investigators found that the presence of trees outside apartment buildings were predictors of certain behaviors: less procrastination, better coping skills, greater self-discipline among girls, better social relationships, and less violence. Educators benefit, too. Canadian researchers found that teachers expressed renewed enthusiasm for teaching in schools that engage their students in natural settings.
Many of the available studies describe correlations rather than cause and effect. More rigorous research is needed. But to many educators, this body of evidence is at least as convincing as the data supporting the digital classroom.
Abstracts for these and other studies, with links to the original research, can be found on the Children & Nature Network Web site and a deeper synthesis is available in a report from C&NN. In the current cost-conscious political and economic climate, it’s time to give nature – not only environmental education, but the nature-based classroom as a learning environment – a closer look. An outdoor classroom in a nearby park, vacant lot, or the woods behind the school, is a lot less expensive than building one more brick-and-mortar classroom, and possibly more effective. That’s something to keep in mind as the new school year begins, as well as a useful consideration next spring.
We often hear from legislators and some educators, as an article of faith, that children lose knowledge during the summer months. What about a different approach? During summer and other out-of-school time, rather than immersing children in the same experiences, we should offer them an entirely different learning environment – one that we know stimulates all of the senses, including a sense of wonder, and a sense of humility.
Grading the Digital School: In Classroom of the Future, Stagnant Scores, The New York Times, Sept. 3, 2011
C&NN Report: Children’s Contact with the Outdoors and Nature: A Focus On Educators and Educational Settings, adapted from C&NN Annotated Bibliographies of Research and Studies by Cheryl Charles, Ph.D., President, Children & Nature Network, and Alicia Senauer, Yale University.
Learn more about C&NN’s Natural Teachers Network.
Excerpt in Outside magazine from a chapter in “The Nature Principle” about the Hybrid Mind
What Your Kids to Get into Harvard? Tell ‘em to Go Outside!
Richard Louv is the author of THE NATURE PRINCIPLE: Human Restoration and the End of Nature-Deficit Disorder and LAST CHILD IN THE WOODS: Saving Our Children from Nature-Deficit Disorder. He is Chairman Emeritus of The Children and Nature Network.