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Children in Crisis; Preschools in the Forests

May 24, 2010 1 comment

Our Children’s School began in a garage, grew into 2 garages, then an art room, then an outside garden plot, then a small kitchen for cooking, and then into the woods surrounding our home. Our sons decided daily, weekly, monthly  what it was that interested them and this determined their curriculum. They dissected worms, a cow’s heart they got “FREE” from the local slaughter house, and frogs. They looked at the stars and studied the universe and its constellations. This brought them to Greek mythology and the Gods. Soon they delved into space travel and astronauts and then went on to Space Camp in Alabama. Dinosaurs were big and so they studied the Jurassic period and took a field trip to Utah’s Dinosaur Valley. They built a tree house on a hill with a tree in the middle of the floor that they insisted could not be cut down – after all, “that is why we call it a tree house Mooooom!”

All of their preschool education incorporated the outdoors and the natural world. I can’t imagine how it is possible to educate preschool children without the outdoors for that is what intrigues them most. They love insects, small animals, rainy days with puddles to jump into, snowmen and snowball fights, butterflies, and the woods. The natural world and the woods are a home to them. They are free to run, explore, conquer, and grow.

It is with great satisfaction that I read an article this morning about a “forest kindergarten” in Vashon Island, WA. The Cedarsong Nature School is a forest preschool and among several that have opened in recent years in the U.S. This is a movement that originated in Europe (and my garages 30 years ago, chuckling). The purpose is to get kids out from in front of televisions and into the natural world. The kids love it! They are outdoors all day, studying how life interacts with them in the woods. These children are different when they enter elementary school. They are healthier, livelier, curious, more mature, compassionate, and intellectually alive. They have an inner joy that is hard to explain, which I believe comes from their knowledge of the natural world and their comfort within it. They are fearless.

Erin Kenny opened the Cedarsong Nature School, after she read “The Last Child in the Woods”, which I discussed in my previous post. In the book, Richard Louv coined the phrase “nature-deficit disorder” to explain a lack of connection between the country’s children and nature. He argues that the decrease in nature dwelling leads to a rise in childhood obesity, attention disorders, and depression. The evidence of this surrounds us. Go to the local mall on any afternoon after school and look at the children, who are usually obese, tattooed, “pants on the ground”, alienated, and looking for something to do inside an enclosed mall when the entire world is waiting for them to explore. They are an interesting comment on their parents and their rote education.

“We gain life by looking at life.”

Dr. Mardie Townsend, a researcher and associate professor  School of Health and Social Development at Deakin University in Victoria, Australia

In the woods on a Balancing Bar

Families in Crisis; The Last Child in the Woods

“What is the extinction of a condor

to a child who has never seen a wren?”

Naturalist Robert Michael Pyle

We raised our sons in the Smoky Mountains of East Tennessee. They went to bed with the sound of crickets and woke up with the songs of birds.  I describe their experiences of growing up with nature in “Peek-A-Boo, I See You!” I knew that nature and its quiet presence was essential for their mental and physical well being, because of what it did for me to walk in the woods, dig in a garden, and care for the many small animals that filtered into and out of our lives. Now they are grown men. The experiences of nature in their early childhood instilled an inner peace and serenity that strengthens with each challenge they must meet as men and the woods and its small creatures created a breadth of compassion within them that is touching and disarming.

“Those who contemplate the beauty of the earth

find reserves of strength that will endure as long as life lasts.”

Rachel Carson

Millions of our children only experience asphalt and concrete. They never dig in the dirt, plant a seed, or harvest a garden. They never walk in a stream, catch salamanders, or glimpse a fish. They live without ever seeing a cow in a field, smelling a green pasture after a rain, or rescue a wounded animal. My friend Warren, who is retired from the National Parks Service, gave me a book to read, “Last Child in the Woods – Saving Our Children from Nature-Deficit Disorder”, by Richard Louv. It is a wonderful book and should be read by every parent who loves their child. I began the book on an airplane and am almost finished.

Have you ever read a book where you keep nodding in agreement with many of the passages. Mr. Louv eloquently speaks to many of my intuitive thoughts and perspectives about children and their need for nature. He created the term “Nature – Deficit Disorder”. He has nailed it! What follows are a few of his observations and the pressing need for parents to bring their children back to the earth and into the woods.

  • Some of the human costs of alienation from nature are: a diminished use of the senses, attention difficulties, and higher rates of physical and emotional illnesses. Long standing studies show a relationship between the absence of parks and open space with high crime rates, depression, and other urban maladies.
  • Biophilia, defined as the urge for humans to affiliate with other life forms, is the hypothesis of Edward O. Wilson, Harvard Scientist and Pulitzer Prize winner. His decade of research reveals how strongly and positively people respond to open, grassy landscapes, scattered stands of trees, meadows, water, winding trails, and elevated views.
  • Dr. Benjamin Rush, a signer of the American Declaration of Independence, declared, “digging in the soil has curative effects on the mentally ill.” Carl Menninger led a horticultural therapy movement in the Veterans Administration Hospital system which demonstrated the therapeutic benefits of gardening for people with chronic illnesses. Research has shown that people experience a significant decrease in blood pressure simply by watching fish in an aquarium.
  • A 10 year study by Howard Frumkin at Emory University’s School of Public Health shows gall bladder patients leaving the hospital sooner when their rooms faced a grove of trees as opposed to patients whose rooms faced a brick wall.
  • The childhood link between outdoor activity and physical activity is clear according to the Centers for Disease Control (CDC). Two out of ten children are clinically obese – four times the rate reported in the 1960’s. This obesity epidemic has coincided with the greatest increase in organized sports for children in our history. What are kids missing that soccer and Little League cannot provide? They miss the physical and emotional exercise that children enjoy when they play in nature. It is more varied and less time-bound than organized sports.
  • It is proven that “kids get depressed” when deprived of physical activity in nature. A 2003 survey in the journal of Psychiatric Services found the rate at which American children are prescribed antidepressants almost doubled in five years with the steepest increase – 66% – among preschool children. (my emphasis).
  • Cornell University Environmental Psychologists reported in 2003 that life’s stressful events appear not to cause as much psychological distress in children who live in high-nature conditions compared with children who live in low-nature conditions. The protective impact of nearby nature is strongest for the most vulnerable children – those experiencing high levels of stressful life events.
  • For a whole generation of children, direct experiences in the backyard, in the tool shed, in the fields and woods, has been replaced by indirect learning, through machines. Even though children are smart we know that something is missing as they sit in rooms and interact with machines instead of humans and the natural world.
  • Only seven states even require elementary schools to  hire certified physical education teachers. This has occurred in a country where 40% of 5 to 8 year olds suffer cardiac risk factors such as obesity.
  • Nearly 8 million children in the U.S. suffer from mental disorders, and ADHD is one of the most prevalent ones. Frances Kuo, Andrea Taylor and William Sullivan of the University of Illinois, have found green outdoor spaces foster creative play, improve children’s access to positive adult interaction and relieves the symptoms of ADD. To take nature and natural play away from children may be tantamount to withholding oxygen. (my emphasis)
  • Children’s Hospital in Seattle maintains that each hour of TV watched per day by preschoolers increases by 10% the likelihood that they will develop concentration problems and other symptoms of attention-deficit disorders by age 7.
  • Swedish researchers compared children within two daycare settings: one a quiet play area surrounded by tall buildings, with low plants and a brick path; the other a play area based on an outdoor all weather theme set in an orchard surrounded by pasture and woods, adjacent to an overgrown garden with tall trees and rocks. The ”green” day care children, who played outside every day, regardless of weather, had better motor coordination and more ability to concentrate.
  • According to the President’s Council on Physical Fitness and Sports, two-thirds of American children can’t pass a basic physical: 40% of boys and 70% of girls ages 6 to 17 can’t manage more than one pull-up; and 40% show early signs of heart and circulation problems.

”Teaching children about the natural world should be treated

as one of the most important events in their lives.”

Thomas Berry

Families in Crisis; Food for Thought

April 21, 2010 2 comments

When we discuss the alarming rates of obesity in our children we are only talking about food. Right?

WRONG!

When we discuss obesity in our children we are talking about iPhones, computers, the internet, iPod / MP3 players, cell phones, lap tops, video games, movies, and televisions in bedrooms.

Obesity is about both parents working. It is about moms and dads depending on MacDonald’s, Burger King, and other fast food places that serve up quick meals that are artificially manipulated to appeal to the taste buds of their children. The calorie loaded nutrition-less food appeals to the lazy or dead tired side of our nature.

It is about school cafeterias who serve the dark edge of junk food to their students. It is about the money schools receive from vending machine operators. They are the suppliers of colas, candy, chips, and the vast assortment of empty calories to our children. It is about parental, teacher, administrator, complacency in the health of our children.

IT IS NOT JUST ABOUT FOOD! It is about the lack of exercise, play, friendship, and nature. It is about this generation’s sedentary, isolated, lonely life. The average young American now spends practically every waking minute, except for the time in school, using a smart phone, computer, television or other electronic device, according to a new study from the Kaiser Family Foundation.

The most disturbing fact in my mind is that millions of children have never planted a seed, walked through the woods, identified an insect, built a fort, fished in a stream, or sat in a field of tall grass or flowers. It is about an entire generation of children and the staggering divide between them and the outdoors.

I am reading a book by Richard Louv, “Last Child in the Woods”, which discusses the absence of nature in the lives of today’s wired generation which is directly linked to the rise in obesity, attention disorders, and depression. Direct exposure to nature is essential for healthy childhood development and for the physical and emotional health of children and adults. He says, “We should explore ways in which to develop programs that bring children beside quiet streams, or on top of mountains, or in the middle of a forest where they may feel the peace within themselves.” Summer camps used to be about that, but they are now financially unreachable for many in this economy, so they stay at home in front of their TV’s or computers, eating pizza, and drinking colas.

FOOD FOR THOUGHT:

  1. We need to get our children outside and away from electronics. They need to meet their neighborhood friends. Neighborhood parents could help by planning events/games for the children – a parental commitment to their children’s health.
  2. We need to be able to provide affordable fun that is also an outdoor adventure for children. We have 391 National Parks with 84 million acres, in 49 states with 21,000 full-time employees, and 275 million annual visits. These are affordable places for children to have the great outdoor experience. The National Parks produced a document called, “National Parks Second Century Commission Committee Reports” and can be viewed at www.npca.org.
  3. There is a concerted effort on behalf of the government to address the physical activity of all children. The White House Press Secretary released a Memo on April 16, 2010 called, “A 21st Century Strategy for America’s Great Outdoors”.
  4. SCHOOL LUNCHES CALLED A NATIONAL SECURITY THREATAll branches of the military are seriously concerned about the inability of our future armed services to defend our country. A new report released Tuesday, April 20, 2010, states that more than 9 million young adults, or 27% of all Americans ages 17 to 24, are too overweight to join the military. Retired Navy Rear Adm. James Barnett Jr. said, “When over a quarter of young adults are too fat to fight, we need to take notice.” He noted that national security in the year 2030 is “absolutely dependent” on reversing child obesity rates.
  5. Whatever happened to backyard gardens? Why can’t we plant neighborhood or community gardens where our children plant the seeds, harvest the garden, and help prepare the meals? Why can’t parents discuss nutrition with them as the seeds are planted and the garden harvested?

There is no greater thing we can do for our children and for the future of this country than to insure their good health, self esteem, and compassion for the earth. It begins at birth, in the home, with loving parents who rise above their own self interests and toss the baggage from their past to become exceptional humans. Parents are the only people who can make permanent changes in childhood obesity. The government can pour billions into programs, but if the parents are not committed the children will follow their lead and wallow in their fat.

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