About the Author

Tamra Willis is an associate professor in the Graduate Teacher Education Program at Mary Baldwin College in Staunton, VA. A former classroom teacher, Tamra now teaches courses for pre-service and in-service teachers and directs the Master of Education in Environment-Based Learning, a program designed for K-12 teachers and outdoor educators who use natural environments to teach all subjects. She is also an advisor to C&NN's Natural Teachers Network. Tamra and her husband, Michael Pelton, live on a farm in Augusta County, VA.

AFTER THE TRAGEDY: Will we still hear the laughter of play on our school grounds?

Life was very good last Friday morning at my small college in the Shenandoah Valley — the end of classes, grades submitted, and paperwork readied for sending a new crop of classroom teachers out into public schools. Then, someone caught news of the unthinkable and within minutes, each of us in the office had one of those awful “where were you when you heard the news” moments, as members of the education department began sharing, in anguish, a great tragedy — small school children, teachers and their principal shot in a senseless, heinous crime.

None of us could fathom why anyone would do such a horrible thing. We worried about the children at the school, the teachers, and the parents, and we wondered how, over time, school systems across the country would react in an effort to protect their students.

Butterfly created by a child in a nature-based preschool in California.

As a former elementary teacher, this event has hit me particularly hard. I’m sure all classroom teachers are grieving, not only for the loss of lives, but for the loss of innocence. It may not feel this way today, but many of us know elementary schools as happy places of living and learning.

Though it has been years since I taught little children, I can still feel the day-to day joy of working in a school. Certainly, there were many stress-filled episodes, but the children’s laughter and eagerness for life are what ring through my memories — and at no time was this more evident than during outdoor play.

One fear I have is that elementary schools will now become locked-door places, with children kept inside more than ever.

As everyone who reads these blogs knows, the amount of free outdoor time for children has decreased exponentially in the past 20 or more years. Many schools, under the veil of trying to increase test scores, have completely eliminated recess. Schools are under pressure to cover more content and that leads to more hours spent in the classroom. Just over a week ago, U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan announced that 40 schools across 5 states will begin piloting longer school days in an effort to increase student achievement; each school will add approximately 300 additional hours of instructional time to the calendar year. Will the additional lessons be more relevant and engaging for students than the ones taught now? Will these schools also increase the amount of time spent outside? Neither of these concepts was clearly addressed in the announcement.

Given the current testing craze, I’m left wondering if “more of the same” will increase anything but boredom for our children. Perhaps, instead of simply increasing time, we should focus more support on programs and strategies that make the process of learning better for students. More recess and outdoor experiences in nature would be excellent goals.

Why start with more time outside? Well for one thing, when schools connect learning to outdoor experiences, students are able to link “boring” subject matter with real-world questions that have meaning for them. Content becomes more interesting and students more motivated to learn. Recess, just a simple outdoor break from the classroom at intervals throughout the day, may also enhance student learning. Student attention spans are limited and they, just like the rest of us, need an occasional break in order to stay focused. Also, students are healthier when they get “at play” exercise. Obesity rates and sicknesses decrease and school attendances increase.

Outdoor play space.

Perhaps even more importantly, given last week’s event in Connecticut, spending time outside, especially in nature, provides a boost to our mental well-being. Doctors prescribe “fresh air and sunshine” for a reason; spending time outside in nature is good for the soul. Without question, we could all use a major dose of “outdoors” as we deal with the mental stress of last week’s tragedy. For children, outside time means play filled with laughter, as essential to their wholeness as other forms of nourishment.

It may seem frivolous to write about play or even academic achievement at a time like this. With the tragedy in the forefront of our minds, I realize we have much more to think about than these educational issues; undoubtedly, our children’s safety is the number one priority.  But as discussions about how to ensure their safety continue in the upcoming weeks, I hope we do not let this tragedy cause us to lose sight of what our children find important, and what they need and want out of life.

As the daily details of the crime take my breath away, I turn to thoughts of my grandchildren for solace.

While writing this refection, I recalled a family gathering around a campfire last summer, just before the beginning of the new school year. We asked my grandson Miles, age 8 at the time, what he was most looking forward to in returning to school. With a large grin and not a moment’s hesitation, he said… recess. Let’s work hard not to turn this horrific incident into a double tragedy — by succumbing to the temptation to lock our children inside.

More reading: Six Ways Nature in Our Lives Can Reduce the Violence in Our World, by Richard Louv

Photos © R.Louv


Comments (13)

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  1. Lisa Connors says:

    Very well said Tamra, at a time when it is difficult to say anything given our grief. I am hoping for a future full of environment-based learning for kids, so we do hear their laughter, and heal our country.

  2. Tamra —

    Thanks for your blog entry! My sentiments exactly, and it is what I needed after the horrible tragedy. We are more healthy, responsible, productive, successful and happy when we live with connected-thought philosophy in mind. As of late it seems too often there are those who drift away from this way of life losing sight of that which is integral and related to care of self and others. The end result is a negative impact on our environment and the communities where we live. I am hopefully, that others understand the importance of principles and concepts such as these and look forward to also continuing to share the power of this all important message.

  3. Tamra, I think you have it right–thanks for posting this. Although I would like to see us collectively make the country a safer and more sensible place (I won’t get into the politics here), if we lock up students indoors and restrict their interactions with nature, we are only perpetuating the horrible effects of the crime. Nature is a healing force–I see it everyday on the faces of my beautiful children, whom I am so thankful for…now more than ever.

  4. Boyd's Outdoor Connections says:

    You are right on, thanks for your blog post that mirror our thoughts. Locking down schools is not the answer, but we have seen this happen already :-(

  5. Nancy C says:

    Well said, Tamra. I don’t understand the unwillingness of school administrators to seek a natural healing process, such as fresh air & sunshine, in the wake of this tragedy. Children are human beings, just like adults; and introspection should tell school administrators what instinctively would be more healing were they subjected to such an unthinkable event in their lives. Lock me up with no visible means of escape??!! Their solution of more classroom time and less outdoor time makes absolutely no sense to me. It seems a more irresponsible, reactive solution, than one that’s been thought through after the horror has subsided!

    Why are they not reading the result of the studies you mention that prove beyond a shadow of doubt(with scientific backing) that environmental learning improves a child’s ability to focus, and actually is proven to increase the brain’s ability to fire on more neurons at faster rate, leading to better information absorption and retention! Who are these people and why are they not consulting the Tamras of our world who have dedicated their lives to childhood education?

  6. John says:

    I recall Dunblane, 96. In the UK that too was a “Where were you?” moment.

    While the politicians will debate mental health and gun control, it’s vital parents and teachers react in the right manner. Boundaries are needed, but your article is a reminder that sun, fun and the great outdoors are vital in a fully realized childhood.

  7. John Thielbahr says:

    This is such an important statement for all school administrators and teachers….and the parents of the children they teach…and the university professors who are preparing our future teachers. This message should go to every school district and PTA, every university education dept…..and even child care centers. So well said, Tamra. I am privileged to know you.

  8. Phil says:

    Wonderful article, simply wonderful. Thank you.

  9. Cindy W. says:

    Thank you, Tamra, for writing this powerful response to the unthinkable. Once again we renew our commitment to what we KNOW helps children grow into healthier, happier, more productive citizens…building an enduring connection to nature through time spent immersed in it.

  10. Andrew Walls says:

    Well said!

  11. Eila J. says:

    Hi Tamra,
    thanks for your fine words!

  12. Karleen Wolfe says:

    Thank you for sharing a very important point — something our teachers know, but few administrators and policy makers understand and/or acknowledge. It’s not simply about sun and fun. Our youngest students get very little outdoor time, which is not only more appropriate for developing bodies, but critical for developing minds and later intellectual prowess. (I’ve spoken with many kindergarten teachers who lament the paltry, 10-minute recess allowed each day at their schools.) As our education system pushes for more academic accountability, it has turned a blind eye to the many developmental needs of young children, e.g., proprioception and vestibular development, understanding and learning to manage the many interoceptor sensations, and social and emotional understanding. These are critical components of a child’s development and to later learning, yet we provide minimal-to-no-support for children in these areas. Our test-driven approach to education is way out of balance in regards to what is best-suited for developing children. Thank you for sharing and continue the message!

  13. Amy Kilpatric says:

    Hi Tamara,

    What a wonderfully written article. I couldn’t agree with you more. I feel privileged to teach science in a school that values the time children spend in nature and we are trying to keep the school shooting incident in perspective. While any of us in the educational community would agree that the safety of children must be our greatest priority, we must also continue to give credence to the psychological well being of our youth. Children that are allowed free play time outdoors are usually happier children. Each year we witness more and more of our students needing medication for anxiety. Anxious children are not safe and the rate of suicide among young people continues to escalate. As an educator, I continually try to provide opportunities for my students to reconnect with the natural world, but I work in a community that has made this possible. My concern is for the children who live in increasingly violent areas where simply sitting on a front porch could result in death or injury from a stray bullet.

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