By Jackie Dobrinska
Remember when being a kid meant exploring hidden trails outside with friends after school and playing made up games? In today’s world, however, childhood often means a heavy load of homework, extracurricular activities, and a schedule so packed it often rivals that of the parents. And kids now seem to spend whatever free time they have in front of a screen and exercise might be with the help of an Xbox.
This is the first generation that isn’t spending a lot of its time exploring and enjoying the world outside their door, and scholars are finding this to be taking a toll on their nervous systems. Diagnoses of attention deficit hyperactivity disorder, sensory issues, obesity, and behavioral problems are becoming more prevalent. Richard Louv, author of Last Child in the Woods: Saving Our Children From Nature-Deficit Disorder, says that although it’s not a medical diagnosis, “nature-deficit disorder” recognizes the problems associated with increasing inactivity and a disconnect from the natural world.
The “de-naturization” of kids happens for many reasons. Sensationalized media, TV, and movies promote a culture of fear in which parents don’t feel it’s safe for their children to play outdoors. Poor urban planning, traffic, and disappearing natural space also contribute to the problem, as does prolonged screen time.
Luckily, a growing movement across the country is helping kids connect more with nature, including several schools and programs right here in Western North Carolina. The curriculum varies and can cover topics from homesteading and primitive skills to canoeing and skiing.
Also important is the fact these activities get kids moving. While this addresses fitness, it also improves focus. “When we are doing math and the kids seem boggy, we go for a hike up the mountain,” says Katherine Murphy, executive director of The Learning Community School (thelearningcommunity.org) in Black Mountain. “Adventure breaks give variety to students’ days, breaking up screen time and book time.”
Involving nature can improve multifunctional learning by helping to illustrate and teach various concepts. A math teacher at French Broad River Academy for Girls (fbra-avl.org) in the River Arts District, for instance, used photos from her skiing trip in Jackson Hole to showcase altitudes and how to add negative numbers.
Most nature-based schools take one day a week to go on adventures or participate in service projects. Kids can learn to turn a canoe in the wind, solve a rock climbing problem, build a fire, or work in a community garden. More than play, these activities build confidence and give kids skills they will keep for life.
“For the bookworm, adventures get them into the fresh air and give them an appreciation for nature,” continues Katherine. “For other kids, those who struggle with reading, writing, and math, the outdoors might be their jam. They might spend all day struggling, trying to be good at something, and then find a different part of themselves in the natural world. It gives everyone a different perspective on themselves and on others.”
Nature education also teaches problem-solving skills, and how to work together as a team. One example is asking students to build a waterproof shelter in three minutes using nothing but what was found on the ground.
Not all of the activities are tightly organized. Students may whittle a stick or build fairy houses. “Unstructured play plants the seeds of creativity,” says Jen Horschman, director of French Broad River Academy for Girls. “It allows their minds to wander and discover.”
Nature education includes play, discovery, and learning, and the students tend to look forward to going to school. It also arms these future adults with important skill sets. This generation of children will most likely face the challenging environmental issues of the future, and it will continue to be important for them to have an appreciation and knowledge of the natural world.