Our covid19 internment has a double negative effect on children: imprisoning them indoors and putting them in front of screens for extended periods. Pat Ganase urges parents and educators to take children back to nature for health and well-being, and to stir their creative imaginations.
Our children find their way into nature from the time they can crawl. Often, unsupervised discoveries are frowned upon. “Oh, dirty!” or “Come and wash those hands and feet.” Research over the recent decades reveals that these experiences are beneficial for curious minds and ought to be directed by parents and caregivers as obvious ways for educating from home.
When I was in primary school, “Tranquil” in Port of Spain, I remember mostly the classes held outside in the yard. And one of my earliest treasured photographs was sitting on the root stumps of a spreading peepal tree near the back fence. I do not remember the teacher’s lessons but I remember how that tree sheltered us; how the extensive root system made natural seats for a class of 30; how we would return at breaks and lunchtime to press our faces against its trunk for hide and seek. It was the same tree under which we played “pitch for keeps,” sometimes using the yellow berries when we had lost all our marbles.
Another friend remembers Ms Artman (Beryl McBurnie’s sister) who would take her class to lie on their backs in that same schoolyard to contemplate the sky. “Look at the sky,” she would command, “what do you see?”
Today, it is the rare schoolyard that is not paved – easier to maintain – or at the very least, devoid of green or growing things, no trees or shrubs, no garden. And it has taken some five decades to return to the idea that outside is as good a classroom, or better, than four unventilated walls and desks side by side in straight lines.
This is not a wistful look back at how good it was in the old days; nor is it meant as a critique on the current state of education in which the demand is for personal computers for distance learning – even for primary schoolchildren – rather than more play or experiences in nature. It is however an urgent plea for childhood that is connected to nature in deliberate ways, planned by parents and teachers.
I also remember a class called Nature Study, for which a copybook with alternating unlined and lined pages was required. We drew flowers and leaves mainly. Few of us had the skill for botanical drawings but we were prompted to notice distinctions: serrated edges on some leaves; multiple small leaves; colour, size and shape.
This enjoyment of places beyond home and school was supported, in my family, by frequent trips to the beach. I must have visited most of Trinidad’s by the time I was ten; and the most famous Tobago beach, Store Bay, by the time I was 13. These were not educational trips, but we absorbed knowledge of our landscape, tropical environment, trees’ fruit and flowers, insects and animals, and developed innate understanding of weather and daylight.
While we chase the advances of technology, progress in the digital age, let us not forget how children learn.
Richard Louv, journalist and author of several books about the value of human interactions with the wild, is a persistent advocate of our need for nature. He says, “The future will belong to the nature-smart – those individuals, families, businesses and political leaders who develop a deeper understanding of the transformative power of the natural world and who balance the virtual with the real. The more high-tech we become, the more nature we need.”
His 2005 book Last Child in the Woods has spurred movements to return childhood outdoors. Among these is the Children & Nature Network (C&NN) with the signature statement:
“Nature has the power to make children healthier, happier and smarter. But over the last few generations, childhood has moved indoors, leaving us disconnected from the natural world. This worldwide trend has profound implications for children’s healthy development – and the future of our planet.”
Louv has been interviewed extensively and his theories written about in many parenting sites and magazines. Most recent studies agree that children who play outside are smarter, happier, more attentive and less anxious than those who spend more time indoors. It may not be clear how the brain functions or why moods improve, but these are some of the effects observed among children who spend more time in nature:
Confidence: There are as many ways to interact with outdoor environments as there are children, from the backyard to the park to the trail, river or beach. The child will choose how he treats nature and has the power to control his own actions.
Creativity: Unstructured play allows children to interact meaningfully with their surroundings. They think more freely, design their own activities and approach the world in inventive ways.
Responsibility: Living things die if mistreated or not taken care of properly, and entrusting a child to take care of the living parts of their environment means they’ll learn what happens when they forget to water a plant, or pull a flower out by its roots.
Stimulation: Nature may appear less stimulating than your son’s video game, but it actually activates more senses – you can see, hear, smell, and touch outdoor environments.
Movement and exercise: Interacting with nature involves more than sitting on the couch. A brisk walk will get your child’s blood pumping. Not only is exercise good for young bodies, but it makes them more focused.
Thoughtful: Louv says that nature creates a unique sense of wonder that no other environment can provide. The phenomena that occur naturally in backyard, beach and rainforest every day prompt questions about the earth and the life that it supports.
Stress reduction: Urban environments require focused attention, which forces us to dismiss distractions, and results in exhausted brains. In natural environments, we practise an effortless type of attention known as “soft fascination” that creates feelings of pleasure, not fatigue.
Louv’s advice to parents and teachers: “The best thing you can do is to be enthusiastic about nature yourself.”