Classrooms Back to Nature

Samantha Cleaver, Scholastic - Not everyone uses garbage as a teaching tool, but maybe we should. Melina Kuchinov, a teacher at Green Woods Charter School in Philadelphia, dumps a trash can filled with compost onto a plastic bag spread on her classroom carpet. For weeks, her first-grade students have collected and composted banana peels, fruit rinds, and vegetables. Now, they are about to learn what happens to their food after they’re done with lunch. They separate dirt from composting trash with Popsicle sticks and examine the bugs that are eating their leftovers, recording their observations as they dig. After several weeks of composting, says Kuchinov, the students look forward to seeing what’s happening inside the trash bin.

Most other schools, Kuchinov admits, would never let her compost in her classroom, much less examine the waste on the floor. But Green Woods Charter, an environmental education school, uses the outdoors as a classroom, even bringing it indoors sometimes. Across the country, environmental education schools and the growing movement to get children outdoors are challenging the current “indoor generation” of kids. “The interest has never been greater,” says Martin LeBlanc, Sierra Club national youth education director. “People have never been more aware of the fact that children are not getting involved with the outdoors.” Even as No Child Left Behind decreases the time alloted for environmental education and field trips, research shows that children who spend time outdoors are healthier, happier, and smarter. With the global warming crisis looming, children who spend time outdoors may also be the ones who help save the planet.

The Indoor Generation

Today’s children spend far more time indoors than out. The percent of adolescents who participated in daily physical education decreased from 42 percent in 1991 to 28 percent in 2003. Worse, up to 13 percent of schools do not have scheduled daily recess at all. And when students are in class, they’re not learning about the environment. “One of the unintended consequences of NCLB,” says Brian Day, executive director of the North American Association for Environmental Education (NAAEE), “was that a whole set of things, environmental education included, got pushed out of the classroom because of the initiative’s overwhelming focus on reading and math.”

At home, children’s time is often structured. After finishing school, sports, homework, and dinner, many children opt for television, video games, or the computer over playing outside before bedtime. Children’s free time, says Cheryl Charles, Ph.D., president of the Children and Nature Network, is “out of balance right now, and it’s to the detriment of kids.” Because of sedentary, indoor lifestyles, doctors treat more and more children for diabetes, obesity, attention disorders, and depression. They see fewer broken bones but more repetitive stress injuries from computers and video games. Too much time indoors and children also lose a certain confidence and independence. “Children used to play outside on their own for hours at a time,” says the Sierra Club’s LeBlanc. “That just doesn’t happen anymore.”

Outdoor time can remedy many indoor-generation concerns. Playing outside is natural exercise, which reduces obesity and diabetes. Playing on fields or in woods stimulates cooperation, creativity, and problem-solving skills more than playing on asphalt. “Kids who play on naturalized schoolyards tend to have fewer antisocial interactions,” says David Sobel, director of teacher certification programs at Antioch University New England. Outdoor settings and green environments also have a calming affect on children with attention disorders; children as young as five showed a decrease in ADD symptoms when they were engaged with nature.

Getting outdoors also improves student test scores. According to a 2005 study released by the California Department of Education, children who learned in outdoor classrooms increased their science test scores by 27 percent. The gains also extend to reading and math. “If you use the environment as an integrating theme across the curriculum,” says Day, “test scores go way up.” It’s reading about the environment and then exploring it that makes a difference. “It’s not merely the act of going outdoors,” says Day, “but if you tie it back to the curriculum in an applied way, then things start to happen.” Click here to keep reading.

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