Want Your Kids to Get Into Harvard? Tell 'em to Go Outside!
First of two in a series
September is back-to-school month, and the chanting begins: Drill, test, lengthen the school day, skip recess, cancel field trips, and by all means discourage free time for (gasp!) self-directed play. Is that approach working, particularly in science learning? Not so well.
A few months ago, I met with a dozen biology professors at Central North Carolina University. They were deeply concerned about the dramatic deterioration of student knowledge of what's out there: these students can tell you all about the Amazon rain forest, but nothing about the plants and animals of the neighborhoods in which they live.
The ethical issues of that process concern him, but what worries him even more is the growing ignorance of nature that he sees in young people. "In a few years there will be nobody left to identify several major groups of marine organisms," he said. "I wish I were exaggerating.”
During a later visit with Dayton, we were looking out of his window at the famous Scripps Pier. I asked him if he had ever thought to engaging a nearby high school. Maybe Scripps could bring the students from that school to the pier or even out on the Scripps explorer ships. “I tried that,” he said. One school administrator's response was, he said, “Oh, no, we've become so sophisticated in the teaching of science, that our students don't have to go outside anymore.”
That attitude is more common than some of us would like to believe.
Last November, two Oregon State University researchers, writing in American Scientist, made the case that "an ever-growing body of evidence demonstrates that most science is learned outside of school.” In “The 95 Percent Solution,” John H. Falk and Lynn D. Dierking write, “The 'school-first' paradigm is so pervasive that few scientists, educators or policy makers question it. This despite two important facts: Average Americans spend less than 5 percent of their life in classrooms, and an ever-growing body of evidence demonstrates that most science is learned outside of school.”
As for the research on nature experience and learning, that too is expanding. (More about that in Part Two) Many of the available studies describe correlations rather than cause and effect. But parents and educators certainly have enough evidence to act.
Out-of-school educators are already taking action, individually and programmatically. Consider Lori Kiesser's program, Inside the Outdoors, in Orange County, California serves 150,000 children each year with a nature-based STEM education afterschool program. A growing network of grassroots volunteers and professionals, natural teachers and pediatricians work every day at getting kids and their families connected to nature. Many of us hope that the tide is turning, that educators, parents and young people, too, are becoming more aware of the value of out-of-school experience and self-directed exploration and play, especially in natural settings.
Richard Louv is founding chairman of the Children and Nature Network, where this piece first appeared. His newest book is THE NATURE PRINCIPLE: Human Restoration and the End of Nature-Deficit Disorder. He is also the author of LAST CHILD IN THE WOODS.
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