“You will find something more in woods than in books. Trees and stones will teach you that which you can never learn from masters.”
~ St. Bernard
Having spent most of the last 18 months roaming the woods and mountains of northern New England with my pup, I watched her attempt to navigate the streets of New York City. As city dogs casually ignored the loud sirens, honking cars, and metal store gates opening, doing their business with ease on the concrete sidewalks, honoring the “curb your dog” signs in the fenced-in little squares where city trees sit, my country dog – who confidently scales rocks, swims through lakes, and races through woods – anxiously searched for something that looked like a bush or a tree without a fence, all senses on high, nervous alert for the din that screamed at her from every angle. While most people presume that the woods where bears and ticks abound is the “wild” and the cityscape is the “civilized,” my dog would disagree if she could speak English.
We often define the “wild” as where the natural world exists and the “civilized” as where the human world exists. The wild is where tall grass grow with abandon and unknown creatures lurk behind trees. The civilized is familiar where manicured green stay within steel fences and unwanted rodents go underground. The more “progress” we make, the more we civilize the wild.
But what if we didn’t try to civilize the wild? What if we made a collected effort to reestablish our relationships with the wild? What if we understood the wild to be where the tall grass dance with joy and tree roots are never unceremoniously amputated to make room for concrete jungles? What if the wild is where education stimulates critical and lateral thinking for interdisciplinary, immersive learning? Perhaps we need to wild the civilized.
According to one study, youth spend an average of 4-7 minutes a day in nature and 7 hours in front of a screen – which has likely increased during the COVID pandemic. And yet, the statistics on the increased levels of anxiety continue to be alarming – and the pandemic of course driving those levels even higher. A community-based platform inspired by Ted Dintersmith, What Schools Could Be, challenges top-down, extrinsically motivated, test-based teaching. This community of educators, like others, challenge a “return” to a four-walls only system of learning as “normal” or sustainable or healthy for the wellbeing of children or the planet. Instead, they seek alternative and innovative ways to reinstill joy and purposed-filled learning to promote student-centered learning, critical thinking, and compassionate communities to address real-life challenges.
Classrooms became wall-less during a pandemic. Not this current one, but in 1905 when tuberculosis ravaged communities across the U.S. Health experts argued for open-air schools from kindergarten to universities. Inspired by European nature schools, nature-based schools has increased 500% in the U.S. over the last decade, and in 2020, the demand spiked.
There has also been increasing attention and research on the benefits of nature-based education to move students from regurgitation and rote memorization to unstructured free play and exploration. The Children & Nature Network has numerous resources that suggest how nature-based programs not only increase physical wellbeing, such as through increased physical activity and reduction of nearsightedness, but also social-emotional wellbeing, such as increased relationship skills and reduction of stress and anger. For parents primarily concerned with cognitive development and achievement, studying outdoors has also been shown to boost academic performance, ability to focus, enthusiasm and engagement for learner, and prosocial behaviors. It also instills an understanding and deep caring for others and the planet beyond children’s immediate circles.
There is still a need to consider issues of equity and access. Most nature-based schools are predominantly attended by children from socioeconomically upper class, Euromerican families. While over two-thirds of Americans believe that having access to a green space within a 10-minute walk from their homes is critical to physical and mental health, over 28 million children don’t have that access. Organizations such as 10-Minute Walk are trying to close this gap, but clearly there is a lot to be done.
So what might we do to encourage nature-based learning for all children?
- Get outside
Provide space and time for children to explore freely their own relationships to nature. If access to a safe green space is available, get young people outside for some unstructured play at least once a day. There doesn’t need to be an agenda or a test, but simply role modeling to children how to allow the “wild” become their teacher, to allow nature to speak their language in a way that children are often more readily able to understand that adults. If access to safe space outside is currently unavailable, opening a window, providing photos and visual images of nature, and allowing for free play can still be tremendously beneficial.
- De-digitize and re-play
Numerous studies abound about the dangers of reliance on digital toys to keep our brains distracted from our own minds – for children and adults. Particularly as the pandemic continues to keep virtual learning alive in some communities, reducing the time in front of a digital screen is critical. While it’s not easy to separate children from their Minecraft, ensuring that there is substantial time where they are “forced” to play with their imaginations and the real world around them. Yes, this might mean they get a bit dirty in the sandbox and muddy from the puddles. However, they may also get more joy, creative, and enthusiastic of learning with the world.
- Write to school boards and legislatures
Actively call and petition local school boards and legislatures for greater access to safe green spaces in communities to ensure greater access and equity. Calling on them to ensure that school days integrate nature-based learning and outdoor, unstructured time can support educators to have greater freedom and oversight to teach beyond the test and to teach the whole child.
Instead of being afraid of the “wild,” we should be more alarmed at how the “civilized” may be limiting our capacity for growth and progress. Recentering nature to learning helps us to recenter our very nature of curiosity, connection, and creativity. Encouraging children to get “wild” may be the most civilized thing we do.