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.
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.
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