Schools can treat 'nature deficit disorder'

Special to the Gazette

Do schools prevent children from learning through direct experiences in nature?

Right here in Williamsburg, kids "don't know where food comes from" said Charlie Morse from the Williamsburg Community Growers program in a recent interview with the Virginia Gazette. Schools seem to limit student access to outdoor open spaces, physical education and field trips.

According to Richard Louv's book, "Last Child in the Woods: Saving our Children from Nature Deficit Disorder," this is precisely what is happening with young people as a result of increased electronic media use and the focus on high-stakes testing. Louv argues that today's children are out of touch with their natural surroundings, which research has shown negatively impacts their cognitive development, their psychological and physical health, and the environment.

Efforts must be made by schools to reacquaint children with nature and cure nature deficit disorder so that kids are healthier, better educated, more independent, and happier.

The term nature-deficit disorder provides a way to describe the detriments of human isolation from nature. Louv pointed out that if children are not taught about the outside world, they are not going to care about protecting or voting for issues that would protect the environment.

While working at an urban Washington, D.C. public school, I noticed that children were disconnected from nature; oftentimes, they threw their empty bottles and food wrappers on the ground in the school yard or on the sidewalks at bus stops. One child read about making maple syrup from trees in a short story and decided that it was "made up. " He told me that syrup comes from a bottle and you buy it at the grocery store. The level of detachment concerning the origin of natural resources was shocking.

As children spend less time outdoors, it hurts their health and the environment. Urban New Jersey high school teacher Doug Larkin recently described a student who felt "that nature and the outdoors … seemed somehow dangerous to her." He argued that parents and teachers are dealing with an increase in sedentary indoor activities and that attention must be paid to science education. By fostering a strong understanding of science — biology, chemistry, earth science — educators can help students make sense of environmental issues such as climate change, industrial pollution, food safety and production, and the destruction and changing of habitats.

Individuals who develop a care for the earth might also take better care of themselves. Research has shown that kids who play outside are less likely to get sick, be stressed or become aggressive. A recent study found that children aged 5 to 16 spend an average of 6.5 hours a day in front of a screen, but by providing opportunities for children to learn outside, schools help develop students' independence, self-regulation skills and physical fitness.

So, how do we get kids outside, moving and learning? Morse believes that by involving schools and community members in community garden projects, students can learn where their food comes from and what it takes to grow it. Former interim director at United Way of Greater Williamsburg, Liz Parman, said in a 2016 Gazette article that community gardens teach "people how to grow their own food, and … [they] get people outside."

In order to increase respect for nature, schools might consider offering more opportunities for field trips to aquariums and zoos where students could gain exposure to conservation issues. Schools must not shy away from opportunities for children to play in open space. Instead, schools could serve as the first stepping stone toward a greater awareness of one's environment by providing students with experiences to connect with their surroundings in a beneficial and meaningful way.

Edinger is a graduate student at The College of William and Mary in the School of Education.

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