If you want to help your child become a better student, don’t hire a tutor. Send him outside. A growing body of research shows that contact with nature stimulates the senses, enhances creativity, increases attention span, raises enthusiasm and boosts test scores.
Unlike the children today, we spent a lot of time playing outside when I was growing up. I just didn’t know how much I was learning by it.
We were lucky there were no computers, smart phones and video games to distract us, and television arrived too late to steal our attention. We were already addicted to a different kind of entertainment.
The nearest back yard, alley or street became our “playground.” Sometimes we moved to a vacant lot or a park in the neighborhood, or down to the creek that meandered through town. For high adventure, we crossed the fence into a pasture where the creek made a big bend just outside the city limits.
There we played war, climbed trees, dug caves, built rafts, waded in the creek and fished crawdads out of the mud. It was a place we could call our own, away from adult supervision, away from walls and fences and signs that read “Keep off the Grass.”
At first the fun was in the play, and then it evolved into an enjoyment of nature itself. For me, that was the great gift of those outdoor adventures.
Teaching nature in school is a challenge. To be most effective the children need to get outdoors, but it’s not happening. Nature is still mostly being taught like everything else, inside the classroom.
There are some good nature programs on the market, such as Project Wild with its strong emphasis on outdoor activities, but few school systems are taking advantage of them. It is both a symptom and cause of our growing alienation from nature.
Electronic addiction is one problem that is creating a barrier between children and nature, and schools are not making things any better by investing heavily in computers and video screens at the expense of experience-based education.
Fear is another barrier. Fear of crime, fear of litigation, fear of letting kids play unsupervised, and fear of nature itself. Some of the fears are well-founded, but others are not.
The fear of nature has grown far out of proportion to the actual danger it poses. Only a few thousand of known species are harmful to man, which leaves about 1.7 million that are not harmful. That means there is a wealth of friendly life out there to enjoy.
Ironically, after years of being stuck in a classroom, I returned to the classroom as an elementary school teacher. The word “elementary” is used loosely, for too often some important elements of education are missing — like having some experience with the real world.
Like many teachers, I did far too much lecturing, but I always thought teaching was about much more than spewing out information. Rachel Carson said it best when she wrote: “It is not half so important to know as to feel when introducing a young child to the natural world.”
The soil on our playground was not suited for grass and it still contained a lot of native plants. When recess was over, we went back out to get a “feel” for the skullcap, ragwort, evening primrose and other wildflowers.
We took short field trips around the neighborhood to watch birds, or to collect seeds, leaves and insects. Our school was only a block or two from the city limits, and sometimes we crossed the fence into an adjoining pasture.
When we couldn’t go into nature, we brought nature into the classroom. I encouraged the students to bring any interesting “specimens” they could find, and they came with a variety of shells, rocks, feathers, bugs, bones, skulls, caterpillars, spiders, turtles and snakes.
The hognose snakes were easy to handle, and I invited students to touch them and examine the beautiful scales up close.
One student brought a pet bull snake that he kept in a terrarium. He called it “Nubbins” and it too was gentle enough to handle without getting bit.
Fear in the students was relatively easy to deal with, but with the administration was more difficult. Eventually, snakes were banned in our school, and though that closed one door on our study of nature, the others remained open.
One day a student showed up with a jar containing a butterfly chrysalis. Like the bob on a pendulum, the shiny cone-shaped chrysalis dangled on a thin filament attached to a twig. For several days nothing happened, and then, in the middle of a lecture, someone in back of the room suddenly shouted, “The chrysalis is moving!”
All at once the students jumped out of their seats and ran to the back of the room, and they spent the rest of the period watching in rapt attention as the creature emerged, puffed up its wings and slowly changed into a beautiful butterfly. The whole room was filled with enchantment.
I wish I could take credit for their response, but that was one time that nature did the teaching.
Richard Weber is a nature enthusiast
living in Ellis County.