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Reimagining Education: Ten Hours in Nature

Being in nature is not only associated with greater problem-solving skills in children, but also invites them to savor the changes that occur. The wilder the nature, the stronger the correlation. All it takes is ten hours a month. How much is that worth?

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©2020 Belinda Chiu
©2020 Belinda Chiu

“Must we always teach our children with books? Let them look at the mountains and the stars up above. Let them look at the beauty of the waters and the trees and flowers on earth. They will then begin to think, and to think is the beginning of a real education.”
~David Polis

We can blame the pandemic for many things. However, Erika Christakis cautions us not to fully blame the pandemic for the growing failures of an educational system that has in many ways, erased the joy of curiosity and exploration. Children, particularly during the formative years learn from and with others. The social cues that enable positive relationships is essential for brain growth, emotional regulation, physical development, and pretty much, what children need to grow in healthy ways. Physical movement and purpose play are critical components to an environment for (supervised) exploration and experimentation. Online schooling has, no doubt, made such environments even more challenging as kids are expected to sit for hours in front of video screens which aren’t even showing their favorite cartoon friends. Yet for many, online schooling isn’t necessary that far different from education systems that have pulled back from interactive play, recess, music, physical activity, and other activities that allow children to embrace their whole selves. While many teachers have done the heavy lifting of instilling a love for learning and play with their students, they often do so under great pressure to abandon dinosaurs and music for test preparation.

Study after study show the importance and benefits of play, and in particular outdoor play, to learning. Not only does nature-based learning decrease symptoms of ADHD, but increases attention, mental health, physical wellbeing, emotional regulation, and yes, test scores. Some children across Western Europe attend “forest kindergartens, known as Waldkindergartens, where they learn outside whether there is rain, sun, or snow. For more traditional perspectives who fear that forest kindergartens might be great for encouraging semi-feral free spirits and not so great for SATs and future surgeons, one study showed that the “forest children” actually performed better on creativity, gross motor skills, problem-solving, and test scores.

Being kept indoors, Richard Louv argued, has real cost to child development, and frankly, human development. Since the world went online, many parents and educators have born much of the brunt of that ever tenuous work-life tightrope. Everyone is tired. If adults find it exhausting, imagine what it must be for younger ones who don’t necessarily have the tools and experience to effectively cope.

Many of us of trained in an “intellectual, rational” approach to education, which encourages overworking our brains to focus on tasks and tests. This top-down approach demands students of any age to focus, focus, focus. Programs to increase concentration can be positively transformative; however, they can also lead to mental exhaustion. Have you tried to focus and concentrate so hard that your brain feels like it wants to revolt? Imagine you’re 5, and you’re staring out at a beautiful tree, but being scolded to focus on the textbook drawing of a tree instead.

University of Michigan researchers Stephen and Rachel Kaplan found that much of our mental fatigue was often the root of psychological distress. Their theory (ART), Attention Restoration Theory, posits that nature can renew this mental exhaustion and counter negative effects. What the Kaplans noted as “soft fascination” allows our brains to rest and move from bottom-up. It’s not that top-down, hyperfocus is not needed, but too much top-down 24/7 doesn’t allow our brain to recover. And as any elite athlete knows, muscles must have a chance to recover to build stronger. Getting our brains to be flexible and nimble is critical to clearer thinking and less anxiety in decision-making.

Enter the power of nature. Nature allows us to focus but not hyperfocus. It draws our attention without try to overwhelming it. It allows us to massage our brains so that it can be more open to possible solutions and innovation. It can also help with our psychological wellbeing, which in turn, boosts our cognitive performance.

Researchers at the National Resources Institute of Finland, Land of the Midnight Sun where even the sunniest of us become susceptible to seasonal sadness, found that it doesn’t take a whole lot for us to reset, boost our mood, and raise our defenses against depression. In a study of 3,000 urban devotees, a simple 10 hours a month spent in nature surrounded by green areas, not only reported brighter moods, but their cortisol levels reflected the same. Even five hours a month can show positive results. The wilder the nature, the stronger the correlation.

Ten hours a month.

What might we do in ten hours?

  1. Take a walk

Solvitur ambulando, an enduring concept, “in walking it can be solved.” Philosophers from the East and the West have long supported walking in restorative setting (e.g., without cell phones, earbuds. Walking in a shopping mall does not count, sorry). If possible, take at least ten minutes a day to walk with your student, sans cell phones.

  • Raise a plant together

Being inside is a reality these days. Raise an indoor plant together. In one study, those with potted plants and greenery showed more prosocial behaviors. Moreover, children who raise plants learn patience, confidence, while deepening and understanding of the natural world and gaining motor skills.

  • Embrace transitions

We’re so trained to rush to decision points and to be the first to solve problems. But as I previously wrote on liminal spaces, sitting in the discomfort of the in-betweens can open up more possibilities – and often wiser – solutions. Being in nature is not only associated with greater problem-solving skills in children, but also invites them to savor the changes that occur. There is no need to solve the changing colors of the leaves or the sky through the seasons. Observing nature’s transitions strengthens the ability to deal with ambiguity in life.

Parents and educators likely will tell you they spend more than that a week trying to get their kids to focus on the talking heads on the computer screen. So, how much are ten hours a month worth to them – and for you?

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