We are a country, born of both indigenous people and explorers new to this frontier. The wonder and excitement of interaction with the environment and cultures created a society of people who are problem-solvers, innovators, and intuitive. In the past one hundred and fifty years, however, we have moved from a societal collection of agrarian and town/city dwellers to an industrial society, to what is now a more urban and sedentary culture. For many reasons, play in childhood has evolved as well, from child initiated and directed to largely organized and adult initiated play dates and sports games. As schools struggle to balance the demands of core curriculum and daily time limitations, the importance of recess and physical education are lost and eliminated, leaving children disconnected with the natural outdoor environment. The result of this disengagement leaves in its wake the problems of childhood obesity with earlier onset of more adult forms of diabetes, a lack of knowledge about the environmental biomes outside of their homes and schools, disinterest and a sense of disinterest in their connection to the natural world, lack of knowledge about where their own food comes from, and a general lack of intuition of how to play and what to do to entertain themselves when outdoors. The school curriculum offers opportunities for students to research and write about the rainforest, rocks and minerals, and the ocean and lakes, but it is all virtual, not interactive. The very idea of taking a walk often brings about puzzled looks and questions of “Why?” and “What are we going to do?”.
I have enjoyed this Volkswagon Passat commercial that has recently aired on television: http://youtu.be/FjTQV6CjAPE . It’s a wonderful vignette about a man spending time outdoors with his son. They are playing a game of catch with a baseball in their front yard, and the father is teaching his son how to throw a ball properly. The father’s unexpectedly poor mechanics in throwing bring a smile to our faces, but this commercial underscores what a difference spending time outdoors together means to a family. The boy is actively engaged in a physical activity-he does not seem to mind that there is much time spent in chasing the ball, but he does love spending time with his father outside.
We are so fortunate to live in the Great Lakes region, with green space available and opportunities to explore nature right outside of our doors. For eighteen years, I taught young children ages four through twelve in an early learning center in Whitehouse, Ohio. Whitehouse is located in the Oak Openings ecosystem in Northwest Ohio. I spent time each day outdoors with the children, exploring local flora and fauna by walking and biking around the area, or through field trip experiences in the Oak Openings and Secor Metroparks. A local naturalist, and a friend of mine, Jon Cross wrote on his website about this biodiverse area. “The Oak Openings region was formed during the last ice age, when the glaciers carved out the Great Lakes area, most notably what we now call Lake Warren. Over time, the waters receded, leaving behind the old beaches and sand dunes from Lake Warren. The biome is approximately 22 miles long and from 3-5 miles wide, extending from Lucas County to Fulton and Henry Counties.” (Cross, J. 2006-2008). The landscape, and diversity of life within it is unique and can be found nowhere else in the world. When we visited the parks, I arranged in advance to have a naturalist meet our group for guided nature walks. We usually had the pleasure of spending time with Paul Goff or Denise Gehring, who engaged the children and adults with knowledge about why Oak Openings was important and about what lived there in terms of plants, animals, insects, and other flora and fauna. We “discovered” waterfalls, frogs, turtles, snakes, deer, mushrooms and toadstools, and observed leaves and footprints, animal scat, and fallen trees that now housed a variety of new life within their decaying trunks. Through these walks, we all developed a reverence and new insight to our natural world outside. Although we were being led on this walk by knowledgeable persons in the naturalist field, the leaders of our walks seemed more interested in seeing the park through the eyes of the children, fielding their endless questions and asking their own Big Questions, such as, “What life is supported by the things on the forest floor?” These walks engaged the children in the Physical, Cognitive, Social/Emotional, and Affective Domains. They also introduced me to a Constructivist Theory that children construct their own understandings through their interactions with people and objects. These understandings are fluid and are revised as children grow and develop new understandings and capabilities. Although I did not know about Lev Vygotsky and his theories about the Zone of Proximal Development, scaffolding, and how important the role that adults and knowledgeable peers play in learning and development of meaning in a child’s life, his Sociocultural Theory plays a big part in how I interact with children today. Awareness of interaction within the classroom, with adults and peers, and the verbal and non-verbal communication that occurs during social interaction plays a role in my assessment and observational time as an educator. I am also strongly influenced by Howard Gardner and his Multiple Intelligences Theory when implementing lessons and learning, and try to offer knowledge served to the learners in the classroom in a variety of ways to reach children in the ways that they learn best and to develop alternative intelligences in each learner to strengthen the Whole Child domain and how they learn and interact within their environment. The capacity to learn follows predictable developmental stages and is, like water, fluid and adaptable. Each child, though, progresses through these stages at their own rate, so the early childhood classroom is populated by students of various ages and stages. Play, then, is a great opportunity for our early learners to practice their new knowledge, and to find challenging ways to progress and grow within their social and play groups.
This is where a connection between learners and the outdoor environment becomes vital. It is my belief that a daily nature walk would be beneficial to learners and would have a positive impact on learning in the Physical, Social/Emotional, Cognitive, and Affective Domain and should be included within the daily curriculum for schools. A tentative title for an investigation into this belief would be “An Investigation into Counterbalancing Benefits of a Daily Nature Walk on the Negative Effects of the Disconnection between Young Children and the Outdoor World”. In an age where recess is an afterthought, and playgrounds are in danger of becoming extinct, reconnecting with the outdoors has never seemed so important. In his book, “Last Child in the Woods, Richard Louv wrote, “Many members of my generation grew into adulthood taking nature’s gifts for granted; we assumed (when we thought of it at all) that generations to come would also receive these gifts. But something has changed. Now we see the emergence of what I have come to call nature-deficit disorder. This term is by no means a medical diagnosis, but it does offer a way to think about the problem and the possibilities-for children, and for the rest of us as well.” (R. Louv, 2005, 2008). Many of our generation grew up playing outside, digging holes, playing with sticks, climbing trees, playing games, such as “Ghost in the Graveyard”, and riding our bikes. We knew to come in for supper, and be in for the day when the street lights came on at night. This is why we as adults do not seem to understand why children say they’re bored when outside, or as a fourth grader interviewed by Richard Louv said, “I like to play indoors better, ‘cause that’s where all the electrical outlets are.” (Louv, 2005, 2008). There are other reasons for less outdoor time, including fears of parents of abduction, crime, and injury, fear of unsafe outdoor environments, traffic, families are too busy working, too tired after coming home from work, children have never learned how to play in an unstructured environment, and many come home after school to an empty house and are instructed to lock the doors, stay inside, and entertain themselves with television, homework, chores, and modern technology. These reasons cross every social and economic level, and every community and are only a few of the reasons that children have few or no opportunities to play outside today.
We as knowledgeable adults can scaffold knowledge about the outdoors with this digital native generation. We can help them to see that by integrating play, technology, learning, and social skills, along with the technology that they’re so familiar with, we can all reconnect with the outdoors and nature, and it can be fun, engaging, and a healthy lifetime activity for all of us.
There will be barriers, though. Among others, we will need to create a professional learning community within our schools and societies to unite these groups in a commitment to our quest. As with using technology, we need to support education and illumination of the hesitant adults, teach them about how to integrate this walk across the Core Curriculum, and plot out walking courses. Bringing in knowledgeable naturalists from the area, physical educators within our school, who will have tools and knowledge about how to assess the physical benefits and growth in the children, and involving the math, science, and language/writing/literature department to create lessons and assessments in their areas will also bring in authentic learning to our Whole Child population. Administrators and boards may need to be brought on board in this important area of the curriculum as well. Other stakeholders in this activity will also need to be informed. As the engineers of this investigation, we need to give all stakeholders the tools that they need to make the objectives of the daily nature walk obtainable and desirable to overcome any wavering of opinion of the importance of reconnecting our learners with nature. We need to give everyone a reason and desire to succeed.
Children have a right to play. In their book, Developmentally Appropriate Practice in Early Childhood Programs Serving Children from Birth through Age 8, Carol Copple and Sue Bredekamp outline the ways in which play is an integral part of child development, “Play is an important vehicle for developing self-regulation as well as for promoting language, cognition, and social competence.” (Copple and Bredekamp. 2009. p. 14).
Nurturing children with a daily walk benefits young learners overall health and wellness, and offers and opportunity for educations to teach to the whole child. Fitness, kinesthetic awareness, physical development, an increase in social skills, vocabulary, reasoning skills, attention, memory, and knowledge across the curriculum are only part of the benefits of reconnecting children with nature. It’s a gift and a baton that we pass on to future generations and caretakers of the Earth. It enriches the framework of our professional practice and transforms our community of learners and their understanding of their relationship to nature in this world. For these reasons, I would like to investigate the value of a daily walk to our disconnected digital generation.