Months and months ago, a fellow educator and advocate for outdoor play in Tennessee sent me a few ideas for blog posts. As I am wont to do, I hemmed and hawed over them for a long time, trying to find a way to organize them in my mind.
With one of her prompts, she sent me an article by Henrietta Cook, the Education Editor for the Australian periodical The Age, titled “How fake nature in child care centers could be damaging”. Without giving too much away, the article outlines recent efforts in Australia to mandate urban schools and childcares to provide students with at least seven square meters for outdoor play space. Three urban centers were given provisional exemptions to this regulation, one of which attempted to mitigate its lack of outdoor space by creating “simulated outdoor environments,” complete with indoor sandpits, concrete pillars painted like trees, and murals of forests.
Of course, as a teacher in a nature program, I’ll be the first to advocate for mandating more outdoor time for students. My gut instinct to the indoor play spaces pictured in the article was to cringe a little. But I am biased. Our school exists on a 30-acre property that is heavily wooded and a good distance from the greater metropolitan area. It has a creek that runs through it, and abundant wildlife that the students can see on a daily basis. We have two lengthy trails that the students can hike regularly. As a program, we have made conscious decision to be as profoundly non-urban as possible. Our program caters to some flexible parents who live and work in the surrounding areas as well as others who live farther away, but are passionate enough about the importance of outdoor education that they are willing to make the commute.
As the world’s educational community gets behind the “nature school” movement, I’ve noticed that there are two conjoined but profoundly different trends going on. Many educators are advocating for more outdoor time, and others are asserting the importance of experiencing and reconnecting with nature. To be clear, I agree with both. But because these two conversations are rarely separated and so closely related, the result has been a gradual stigmatizing of non-natural outdoor play. The photos of children on playgrounds, swing-sets, slides, and jungle gyms that were so common in the educational periodicals of my adolescence are being gradually replaced with pictures of children walking on fallen trees, jumping off of stumps, digging in gardens, and chasing insects. Which, on the whole, I think is a good thing.
While the push for more natural education is an educational trend that I find to be important and extremely relevant in this day and age, it is also very pointed. Nature programs are beautiful and incredibly efficacious for cultivating the curiosity and empathy of children, but they are also often inaccessible because of their geographic/topographic requirements, small class sizes, long waitlists, and high tuition. The truth is that, for many students, the professions, salaries, and access to benefits of their parents have a direct impact on whether or not they will ever have access to a “natural” school environment. (I discuss this a little more in-depth in my Booming City, Tiny Baby, Broken Heart.)
As the nature school movement ramps up, urban schools are being viewed as convenient, but not trendy. With so many studies being published each year on the benefits of nature, many parents have started to latch onto the idea that without verdant, wide-open, wild spaces, children can’t learn. In an effort to keep up, many urban schools have started spending tremendous time and resources on “naturalizing” their spaces, and a few of the smaller schools without the resources to do so get passed over when young parents are looking for place to enroll their sons and daughters, leading to staff cuts or closures.
But outdoor education and natural education aren’t the same. My baby daughter is enrolled in a school that is just blocks from the heart of downtown Nashville, and I see the quality education she receives each and every day. She spends a lot of time outside, but her outdoor time isn’t specifically natural; it consists of exploring a rooftop playspace and taking wagon rides through the heart of the city, rolling past busy streets and humming small businesses. She doesn’t spend her days looking at the wild flora and fauna of Nashville. She spends them watching a city being torn down and built up again bigger and more lively. Her classmates point to massive cranes, helicopters, airplanes, billowing flags, and the sun glinting off of thousands of mirrored skyscraper windows. On the roof, she hears birds chirping, but she also hears cars beeping, people chattering, the sirens of emergency vehicles, and the whirring of machinery at work. To me, she and her classmates are getting a rewarding and primarily non-natural outdoor education.
In his book Place-Based Education: Connecting Classrooms and Communities, David Sobel talks about how it is vitally important for children to develop a connection to the environments they see each and every day. Children who learn the names of the birds, plants, and bugs they see around their school grounds develop not only relevant biological knowledge, but a deeper and more profound attachment that can engender conservation efforts later in their lives. In many ways, his ideas express a sentiment that local learning is the strongest foundation for global learning.
To my daughter, the wild woods of the program where I work are mysterious and enchanting, and she loves visiting from time to time. The 30-acre property, rife with huge trees and flora and fauna, is like a vacation to a faraway foreign land. It is exciting and very engaging, but it isn’t as real to her as her daycare environs. My wife and I don’t live on a farm; we live in a little two bedroom apartment that is a few minutes from downtown. Our backyard consists of three feet of moss and grass between a concrete porch and a metal fence. Her outdoor time spent at school is, in many ways, place-based education at its best. Her daily tours of downtown, people-watching on Broadway, and rooftop helicopter searches aren’t worse than her time in the woods. They are just different. As my coworker is so fond of saying, “the outside is the the most multi-layered, sensory-rich learning environment there is,” and I couldn’t agree with her more. Whether in the middle of the woods or on a roof in middle of downtown, children thrive outside.
Do I wish our family lived on a few beautiful wooded acres that our daughter could freely explore? Sure. Do I think the nature school movement is vitally important to getting future generations to rejoin the natural world and disarm the nature-phobia that has become so ubiquitous for my generation? Of course I do. But children have the incredible ability to exercise their insatiable curiosity and investigatory abilities no matter where they are, whether they are in the middle of the woods or the beating heart of the city. I feel strongly that every child should and might yet one day have the opportunity to wander the woods and explore the Great Outdoors, but I also feel strongly that every child, regardless of where they live, what their parents do, and the educational options available to them, deserves to have the richness and relevance of their education respected and made visible.
The simple truth is that for children to learn, and to connect with each other and their communities, they need only two things: to be outside, and to feel a real connection to the collective places and things that they call home.