By Clint Williams
Green Right Now
The kids are heading back to the classroom – if they aren’t already there sitting in rows in front of a blackboard – and parents are plotting how to give their children an academic advantage. Some are buying DVDs, books or computer programs. Some are paying for tutors or study skill seminars.
All well and good. But if you want you kids to be smarter, some experts say, push them out the backdoor to play in the dirt, hunt for bugs and pollywogs, and explore the nearby park.
“If you want your kid to go to Harvard,” author Richard Louv told me in 2008, “tell him to go outside.” Louv, who coined the phrase nature deficit disorder in his book Last Child in the Woods, says playing outside with the bugs and the butterflies and the birds is critical to the development of children. In his book, Louv explores the modern disconnect from nature and its impact on children, citing research that links obesity, depression and short attention spans to the lack of time exploring forest and fields.
You don’t need a slew of scientific studies to tell you kids aren’t as connected as they once were with the natural world. But the disconnect is well documented. A British study, for example, found children much better at identifying Pokeman characters than common plants and animals.
Jenna Hunter, an Earth Science teacher at Manhattan’s High School for Environmental Studies New York City, sees the disconnect in her students – students already with a scholarly leaning toward the natural world.
“Their closest engagement with nature is cockroaches,” says Hunter.
So, for the past two summers, Hunter has been a mentor with Leaders in Environmental Action for the Future (LEAF) —an environmental leadership program for teenagers run by The Nature Conservancy out of New York City.
LEAF combines enriched environmental study with paid residential summer jobs for students on Conservancy preserves. For many students, the four-week program is the first time leaving their borough, says Brigitte Griswold, Director of Youth Programs.
The program is a mix of academic work and manual labor—from restoring habitat by removing invasive plants to building trails and footbridges.
“The kids the first week are generally freaking out about bugs,” says Griswold. “They think dragon flies can kill you.”
That’s why it’s important to have the adult mentors – and a 3:1 ratio – and an extended time in the woods, Griswold says. That combination helps ensure the introduction to nature is a positive experience, not an icky one.
The LEAF program got a big boost earlier this year with an $800,000 gift from the Toyota USA Foundation. The grant will enable LEAF to double the number of students and environmental high schools served in the New York City metro area. The grant will also help lay the foundation for LEAF’s expansion into new cities next year.
Science teacher Hunter says she sees long-reaching effects from the time spent outdoors.
“The students are more curious—and not just about environmental science,” Hunter says.
“Their sense of place in the world is greater than reality TV shows, greater than New York City.”
It’s best not to wait until the kids are in high school to expose them to nature. The sooner the better, and the greater the benefits.
The free play of exploring the outdoors has measurable benefits for the cognitive, creative and emotional development of children, says Cheryl Charles, Ph.D., president, CEO, and co-founder with Louv, of the Children and Nature Network, created to reconnect children with nature.
“This isn’t frivolous,” Charles says, adding that the over-scheduled, formal activities that have replaced splashing in nearby creeks reduces the ability of children to make decisions for themselves. Play without risk means not learning how to manage risk.
Tree planting in the city (Photo: The Nature Conservancy)
But it’s not just that no nature is bad. Studies show more nature is good.
“Connection with nature improves cognitive development in all subjects and skill areas,” Charles says. “I often think of nature as the first classroom.”
The sense of wonder children experience brings focus.
“Play in nature, particularly during the critical period of middle childhood, appears to be an especially important time for developing the capacities for creativity, problem-solving, and emotional and intellectual development,” writes Dr. Stephen R. Kellert of Yale University in his book Building for Life: Designing and Understanding the Human-Nature Connection (Island Press, 2005).
Even just being able look out at trees, shrubs and the open sky has benefits. A study of 101 Michigan high schools found schools with larger windows and more views of natural elements had students with higher standardized test scores, higher graduation rates, and a greater percentage of students planning to attend college. The 2008 study controlled for a number of socio-demographic variables.
But one walk in the woods isn’t going to boost your kids SAT scores. There needs to be sustained exposure – and some guidance – to the great outdoors, experts say. But that doesn’t mean regular backpacking trips into a distant wilderness area.
“Nearby nature is incredibly important,” Charles says. “There is more nature to be found than might be expected in urban and suburban settings.”
Griswold of The Nature Conservancy notes that 25 percent of New York City is park space. New York City has more than 1,700 parks, including the 770 acres of the iconic Central Park in Manhattan. Then there are refuges that aren’t frequently the backdrop in movies such as the 654-acre Alley Pond Park in Queens, a place known for massive tulip trees, oaks and beeches, or the 250-acre New York Botanical Garden in the Bronx. There’s also the richly landscaped and lofty High Line walkway that wends its way through Manhattan.
Research of the benefits to children of playing outdoors and tips for parents and teachers can be found at the Children & Nature Network website.