The "Scandalously New Idea" of Providing Outdoor Education for All Students

Solutions Journalism

Solutions Journalism Network

New Haven, CT, United States

NPO/NGO/Social Enterprise

The rise of disciplines such as "eco-psychology" and the 2007 coining of the term "nature-deficit disorder" represent a renewed focus on the importance of the presence of "nature" in childhood. In his book, The Last Child in the Woods, Richard Louv shows that the over scheduling of youth activities and the simultaneous rise of technology dependence and fall in direct experience with nature have had serious consequences for the mental and emotional health of America’s children. He finds links between decreased time spent in rural spaces and depression, anxiety, and ADHD, among other health concerns. Interestingly, Louv reports, the rise in obesity in the past few decades has correlated with the rapid increase in structured sports. So, if not just exercise, he asks, what are we missing? The resulting discipline is decidedly separate from its predecessors: “Studying the impacts of the natural world on the brain is actually a scandulously new idea,” Louv said.

In response to Louv's prodding and other evidence-based findings, programs inside and outside the formal education system have begun to recognize the concrete advantages of spending time outdoors and connecting with "nature." In rural Finland, kindergartens participate in "Forest Friday," a full day dedicated to unstructured outdoor learning - whatever the kids find and observe becomes the day's lesson. While some European institutions have been tapping into fields and creeks for decades (and have seen reductions in bullying and improvements in ADHD adaptations as a result), only in recent years have mainstream initiatives emerged to ensure that students in urban schools and settings are just as likely to reap the psychological, physical, and cognitive benefits of place-based and hands-on learning.

One app encourages kids in L.A. to get outside and learn about their subtly "natural" surroundings. Another movement is working to create child-friendly cities, by highlighting hyper local public spaces. KABOOM!, a national nonprofit, is enabling playground construction to eradicate persistent "play deserts." A Baltimore-based program employs ex-offender teenagers to beautify unused lots and simultaneously empower students with useful knowledge about urban agriculture. A preschool farm experiment shows that kids' notion of environmental stewardship can be strongly influenced, with important implications for the future of our planet. An organization in Oregon has even highlighted the importance of time spent in nature for formerly incarcerated adults working to reintegrate into society. For Outside, Brian Mockenhaupt explains, "We extol the power of the outdoors to bring balance and perspective. But is that benefit due only to the well-adjusted and trouble-free? Because here is a group that perhaps needs it more than any other."

This collection explores how noteworthy schools and organizations enable all students, regardless of location, class, age, and race, to learn from the "outdoors" - whether in a national park or a small green patch in an urban jungle.

Sources: Articles in this collection and Richard Louv's The Last Child in the Woods.