Thursday, August 28, 2008

Saving our Chidren from Nature Deficit Disorder

Visiting principals from Gisborne exploring the bush environment being established in the grounds of Spotswood Primary school New Plymouth.

There are those who are bringing to our attention that our children are becoming the first generation without a meaningful contact with the natural world. One such writer is Richard Louv author of 'Last Child in the Woods'.

Within the space of a few decades, Louv writes, the way children understand and experience nature has changed radically. Children today are aware of global threats to the environment but their physical intimacy with nature, he says, is fading.

There was a time when young children roamed free, exploring their immediate environment without fear but things have changed. Today, Louv writes, children can tell you all about the Amazon rain forest but little about their immediate environment. This would be true in our own country. Few children these days can recognise native plants, local bird life, or common garden plants.

There are those who suggest that an association with the natural environment is linked is positive mental, physical and spiritual health. Louv writes that we need to strengthen the bond between our young and nature and that, by doing so, this will lead to the development of positive attitudes towards conserving the natural environment.

Exploring nature is an ideal antidote to spending too much time 'plugged' into virtual worlds. Unlike television nature does not steal time it amplifies it, providing sensory experiences that children can interpret in their own way. Nature inspires creativity and poetic responses. Children whose curiosity is captured are in a position to develop lifelong interests. Once such things were a feature of New Zealand classrooms of earlier times.

Louv writes that when he was young exploring the natural world was his Ritalin. 'Nature', he writes. calmed me, focused me,and yet excited me.' This lack of experience of the natural world leads to, what he calls, 'nature deficit disorder' and, he believes, contributes to the growing problem of 'attention deficit disorder'. 'Nature deficit disorder' he describes as the human costs of alienation from nature, the diminished use of the senses, and attention difficulties.

There is a great need to reawaken or inspire children's awareness of their natural world. It seems that this 'back to nature' movement is finding some purchase in our education system. Innovative schools need to tap into this growing trend and begin exploring their immediate environment as if through the eyes of scientists, artists, historians etc and, in the process, develop in their students a strong sense of place and a growing protective attitude to the natural world.

Louv wonders how much richness of life has been traded for a daily immersion in indirect technological experience? A visit to many classrooms shows how the 'primary experience' of sensing, touching and feeling has been neglected leading to an inability of students to experience their world directly. Young children are equipped to experience their world through their senses but, to do so, they need continual encouragemnt. Through such sensory experiences new ideas and new words arise for them to communicate and think with. These 'internal thoughts' make the ideal first books for beginning readers. This is another idea that creative teachers once made use of when classrooms featured a strong language experience approach. Today, all too often, literacy has been separated from such personal and sensory experience. Schools need to introduce more direct sensory experience to heighten their students powers of observation and to compensate for a distracting 'Internet addiction'.

The power of nature to inspire creativity has been long known. Most of our schools have an untapped resource 'just outside their window' but, to take advantage of such opportunities, teachers need to develop their own nature awareness ability. Every day, to the observant, provides some small starting point for a discussion or observation.

With the growing fear of parents to let their chiden play in outdoors unsupervised schools have an added responsibility to developed nature awareness in the young. The freedom of a 10 year old in 1990s in England is now comparable to a 7 year old in the 60s.

Another issue is that all too often schools fill their students minds with environmental disasters ( 'saving the whales and rain forests') while at the same time ignoring ecological studies linked to their own environment. This results in, what one writer calls, ecophobia. Those who grow up wanting to protect their environment have been taught to love nature from an early age not through exposure to 'virtual nature'. Passion does not arise from a videotape!

Experiential education needs to become a priority once again in our schools and, unlike technological education, it comes at lesser cost. As Rachel Carson wrote in the 60s, 'If a child is to keep alive his inborn sense of wonder' he or she, 'needs the companionship of at least one adult who can share it, rediscovering with him the joy, excitement, and mystery of the world we live in.' By this means such adults let nature enter children's imagination providing material for creativity and personal expression.

Experiential education provides opportunities for the development of studies that access all forms of knowledge.

Schools are beginning move in this direction with 'eco' schools, developing natural environments in school grounds, propagation of native plants, and reintroduction of school gardens. Many schools are developing in-depth ecological studies that once we feature in schools before the introduction of standardised curricula. Such school are re-learning the necessity of 'doing fewer thing well' rather than current 'cut and paste' projects.

Our schools in New Zealand, with their past reputation for environmental education, are well placed to once again take the lead and, in the process, reconnect children with their natural world.


Anonymous said...

I am with you.Very few kids, or their teachers, know much about the natural environment. As you say time for some in depth enviromental studies that used to be such a strong feature of our schools - and lets have more sensory language experiences for our students with poor language ablity.

Anonymous said...

I am deep into the book you wrote about earlier (Childhood and Nature). It is fantastic. I am also reading 'Choice Words' by Dr Peter Johnstone which I highly recommend.

Bruce Hammonds said...

Good to hear from you Jody.I just wonder where all the great experiential /environmental /sensory language and art went to. It is just what so many of our kids need these days.

JH said...

Thanks Bruce. Great post.I have linked to it at:

Anonymous said...

I agree with your blog but is that gorse and woolly solanum I see in the photo?