Eden C. Stein
With the growth of the environmental movement over the past fifty years, the value of spending time in nature and the importance of educating children in the value of the natural world has become increasingly acknowledged. According to Laws and Lygren, “Children need nature. Contact with the natural world improves health and reduces stress. Nature is also a rich and meaningful place to learn.”1 They also describe how spending time in nature improves mindfulness and builds community. According to Ming Kuo, Ph.D., leader of the Landscape and Human Health Laboratory at the University of Illinois, in addition to improving students’ attention, spending time in nature also helps children develop self-discipline and makes students more engaged and interested2. Experience has taught parents and teachers for eons that children are happier, and better adjusted when they spend regular time out of doors. However, in this age of video games, smart phones, and especially in an urban environment many children spend little, if any time in nature.
Despite the known benefit of spending time outside, according to some authors, children today have a “nature deficit disorder.”3 So many young people spend most of their recreational time inside, glued to electronic devices. In urban districts, spending time outside is frequently foreign, unfamiliar and may even be dangerous in some areas. Recently, the need to spend time in nature and green spaces has increased and been acknowledged even more with the COVID epidemic beginning in 2019. When people were housebound, and unable to socialize with others, mental health experts encouraged people to walk and spend time outside to improve overall mental health. When children and teens were going to school virtually and spending most of their schooldays, in addition to leisure time, on screens, they too were encouraged to go outside and observe and explore their surroundings when possible. Furthermore, meeting the social-emotional needs of children became paramount in many school districts. However, while children raised in the city may have small yards or nearby parks available to them, frequently they are unaware of and unfamiliar with their natural environment. This unit offers teachers a systematic and engaging way to help urban students spend some time outdoors as well as begin to think about nature as an essential part of their life as well as appreciating the value of spending time outdoors as a personal coping mechanism. Another goal is for students to develop a mutual relationship with nature and even consider the natural environment part of their universe of obligation.
An important additional reason for children to learn more about nature and connect to the natural environment in order for them to do something about the very real threat of global climate change and pollution to our planet and world. It is hoped that during this Anthropocene age children will grow up to have a purposeful relationship with nature and develop the motivation to care for our precious planet. We understand that in order for people to have the will to make real behavioral and legal changes pertaining to our environment we must learn to care for it, and in order to care about nature we must feel connected to, and comfortable and familiar with our natural surroundings. It follows that spending time in nature, learning about it and writing about it will facilitate these feelings and produce citizens who are motivated to do whatever it takes to save our planet.