Why nature school?

“As we work to heal the earth, the earth heals us.”

Robin Wall Kimmerer, Braiding Sweetgrass

In nature, children are at home. They run, explore, create, grow curious, and play. Play is the work of childhood, Mr. Rogers said, and he was right. Ask any expert in child development and they will tell you that play is absolutely essential to a child’s intellectual and emotional growth and development. But since the 90’s, we’ve seen a hyper-focus on academic learning for children as young as 2 or 3. Turn PBS or Nickelodeon on for just 30 minutes and you’ll see a commercial for 2 and 3-year-olds learning how to read, giving parents the idea that this is natural in the course of child development. It is not. And as parents and educators, we must fight back.

According to Peter Gray, play is self-chosen and self-directed, motivated by means more than ends, is guided by mental rules, and includes a strong element of imagination. Too often, early childhood classrooms are filled with children listening to an adult and participating in teacher-led activities. Play, observed by teachers ready to listen and guide, can provide much richer learning experiences.

So many shapes…

We’re up against another deficit as well – nature deficit disorder. It is not a medical diagnosis but a term coined by Richard Louv in his book, “Last Child in the Woods.” In Louv’s words, “[An] expanding body of scientific evidence suggests that nature-deficit disorder contributes to a diminished use of the senses, attention difficulties, conditions of obesity, and higher rates of emotional and physical illnesses. Research also suggests that the nature-deficit weakens ecological literacy and stewardship of the natural world.” The average American child spends 4-7 minutes a day in outdoor, unstructured play and roughly 7 hours in front of a screen. At a very young age, most children can recognize the logos of Nike, McDonald’s and Target, but can’t tell you the names of the trees or flowers in their own backyard. We have lost our relationship to nature, and we must get it back. 

An abundance of research since 2005 gives us plenty of reasons to choose nature school. Here’s a sampling of what nature can do for children:

  • Build confidence, independence, and give kids agency
  • Cultivate ecological literacy and a love of Mother Nature
  • Aid in the development of empathy
  • Create and foster environmental stewardship
  • Nurture creativity and imagination
  • Reduce symptoms of ADHD and improve executive functioning skills
  • Foster adaptability, endurance, and perseverance
  • Allow for intense gross motor development and adventurous play
  • Help children develop risk assessment skills
  • Decrease stress and anxiety

To further your learning about nature and how it heals both children and adults, here are some books to add to your library:

  • Braiding Sweetgrass – Robin Wall Kimmerer
  • The Last Child In the Woods – Richard Louv
  • Balanced and Barefoot – Angela Hanscom
  • Free to Learn – Peter Gray
  • The Nature Fix – Florence Williams

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