“Connecting Children with Nature”
by Nicole Langdo
Saturday, April 13, 2019
When the Sourland Conservancy asked me to talk about the importance of getting children outside one Thursday night in April, and then organize a group of children to see, hear, and touch the forest the following Saturday morning, I, of course, jumped at the chance! With nearly seven years leading children on outdoor learning adventures at Painted Oak Nature School under my belt, and over a dozen years of experience in other traditional school environments, I felt qualified and ready for the task at hand.
If you have been following education over the last two decades, you have noticed an evolution – children as young as five years old being expected to sit at desks for hours at a time to accomplish required paper and pencil tasks, blocks of time previously devoted to unstructured outdoor play have dwindled, and near constant assessment of student, and thereby teacher, performance through frequent testing has become the norm. Students report feeling stressed out, anxious, and unable to cope with the pressures of “life.” Feelings of despair and depression have led to suicide being the 2nd leading cause of death among 10-24 year olds1 (2016.) With only 36% of American children getting the recommended physical activity a day2 due to increased school rigor and increased screen-time, it is no coincidence that obesity has more than doubled in the last 30 years, ADHD is on the rise, as are incidents of bullying and social aggression.
So what can we do?! The answer is really quite simple – encourage unstructured outdoor play and a reconnection to nature. According to the biophilia hypothesis3, humans are hard-wired to connect with other living things. It is part of our DNA to want to be outside! Read anything by Richard Louv and the point for why getting outside is so important and the benefits of such will be made.
It is with all of this powerful information from Thursday night’s talk, that we eagerly set out last Saturday morning with over a dozen children, ages 2 – 10 years old, to hike Thompson Preserve in Hopewell, NJ. After an evening full of Spring rain the night before, this was no easy feat! The “Squelch Monster” was hungry and waiting to “eat a few boots” along the way.
But the children would not be deterred. Promises of open-ended play and a tarp full of some simple materials to inspire exploration and creativity (magnifying glasses and chalk) provided all the motivation they needed to keep going.
Having successfully maneuvered the grips of the Squelch Monster, we arrived at the newly fenced in area4 along the edge of the meadow. The children quickly located the blue tarp, selected materials, and were off! The fence provided parents a greater sense of comfort that allowed the children to run off together as a newly formed tribe to find more puddles, insects to identify, vines for swinging, and fallen trees for climbing and balancing.
This also allowed parents to make social connections, swap stories, and resources, which after all, was the purpose of today’s hike – to empower parents with a few simple tools that will make getting their children outside feel possible, and to connect with others who may be interested in the same thing.
Today marked the beginning of a Hopewell Valley Family Nature Club.5 Family Nature Clubs (FNC) are intended to bring families together in nature. I hear so many parents share with me their own feelings of anxiety about getting out in nature – where to go, what to do once we are there, will there be bears or snakes, or coyotes, isn’t it risky, what do I do with myself, my child will be bored after five minutes, then what? The idea, then, of a FNC is to set a time and place to meet other interested families in nature to hike and explore together. This creates a greater sense of security with safety in numbers, allows parents to socialize and meet other like-minded parents, and to share combined nature-knowledge. Another huge benefit is knowing that when a group of children get together, very little else is needed – the play takes over and parental structure can take a backseat.
By the end of our time together, which amounted to just a few short hours, little red bugs had been identified, skunk cabbage sniffed, wild edibles tasted, worms named, and new friendships forged.
We felt empowered to hike back out to once again face the “hungry hands” of the muddy Squelch Monster; this time together.
SEE YOU OUTSIDE!
2American Academy of Pediatrics
3Developed by researcher Edward O. Wilson
4A reforestation project being completed by the Friends of Hopewell Valley Open Space
5More information can be found at Children and Nature.org