For years, parents told their kids “Go out and play,” fully expecting them to spend the day getting dirty, exploring nature and, well, just being kids.
Then came video games, smartphones, smart TVs, social media and more — and the amount of time kids spent outside playing in nature decreased exponentially, while the amount of time they spent indoors skyrocketed.
According to a study U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, Americans spend an average 90% of their time indoors where some pollutants can be two to five times higher than outdoors. That is a concern particularly for those “most susceptible to the adverse effects of pollution,” such as young children and the elderly.
While there is evidence to suggest that the COVID-19 lockdowns encouraged people to spend more time outdoors, the amount of time spent in nature is still not enough to reap the myriad benefits of being in nature, particularly where children are concerned. Now a crop of nature-based educational programs and experiences in the region are hoping to change the dynamics for good.
“Once upon a time, kids went outside and played in nature; nowadays, they don’t do that so much. We are providing an opportunity for kids to get out and engage in nature,” says Brian Kuser, educational director at Fernbrook Farms in Chesterfield, N.J., noting that there’s “more and more research coming out about the benefits of coming outside and using nature as a classroom,” including educational and mental-health benefits.
“Just think about the use and stimulation of a child’s senses when they are in the classroom all day; there is only so much stimulation that they can be afforded in there,” he continues. “But in nature, there is so much for all of the senses to be stimulated when they are outside. Add to that the different seasons throughout the year, and their senses are always engaged.”
A 238-acre working family farm that Kuser’s great-grandfather bought back in the 1890s, Fernbrook has been offering educational programs since the early 2000s. It has five different ecosystems onsite, including a pond, meadow, forest, garden and creek. Each ecosystem provides different opportunities for kids to explore — from butterfly watching in the meadow to building a dam in the creek.
The farm offers a range of programs, among them a daily nature preschool where kids are outdoors almost all day, every day; a summer camp; programs for homeschoolers; vacation camp and more.
‘Engaging many parts of their minds’
According to the North American Association for Environmental Education, as of 2020, there were approximately 585 nature preschools, outdoor preschools or forest kindergartens in the United States, a 25-fold increase in just 10 years. These outdoor educational programs aren’t about getting kids to play in a playground for a few minutes at recess, they are about kids getting their hands in nature and learning outside all day long.
“Teaching kids in nature fosters creativity. Many structured play environments have rigid ways to play and rules for use. A slide, for instance, has a specified use; it might be fun for children, but it doesn’t engage other parts of the brain like creative thinking or problem solving,” says Stephanie Bruneau, the assistant director of adult education of the Morris Arboretum in Philadelphia. “Playing outdoors with natural elements is less prescriptive. Pebbles, branches, dirt, leaves — children can make up their own games and rules, engaging many parts of their mind as they play.”
The arboretum has been offering outdoor educational opportunities since the 1970s and had more children visit this past fall than in the last five years put together. And its summer-camp program and “out-of-school” day programs sell out almost immediately. Its current slate of programs include “Seeds to Sprouts,” a multi-week program for preschoolers; and “Morris After Dark: Going Batty,” which will be for people of all ages to learn about bats.
Both of those classes are offered under the arboretum’s “Growing Minds” banner, which, says Bruneau, “aims to help children to observe, question and experiment in order to better understand the natural world that we are all a part of. What lives, grows and breaks down at the arboretum? How do parts of a system affect each other? Our classes spark curiosity and wonder that persists.”
But getting outdoors isn’t just for the youngest set. In Delaware, the Caesar Rodney School District, with 8,000 students in grades pre-kindergarten through 12, is leading the way in showing how public schools can prioritize environmental education through outdoor programming.
According to Todd Klawinski, environmental educational specialist at the district, their goal is to have a “systemic, meaningful program for achieving environmental literacy that includes an outdoor educational component and sustainability education.”
The outdoor component, he explains, is vital “because you can’t connect to the world around us without getting into it.”
“Does every kid get outside every day? No, but we are working toward that,” he says.
A 2019 U.S. Department of Education Green Ribbon Sustainable School District, Caesar Rodney was the only school district to win two grants from the National Fish & Wildlife Foundation as part of the Delaware Watershed Conservation Fund. The most recent — a 2022 grant for $227,00 — will go towards restoring under-utilized spaces at its 14 schools to “support habitat and native species conservation” and at the same time increase “equitable access to authentic place-based learning for all students.”
While many blame technology for keeping kids indoors, Klawinski points to an additional factor: “The No Child Left Behind” act and its impact on public-school education. The 2001 federal legislation led to standards-based academic assessments and “pulled kids out of outdoor spaces” as educators aimed to meet the test scores.
‘Use all of their senses’
Having kids learn in and from nature will require a change in the educational culture and parental ideology of today, but it is happening, especially after multiple years of the coronavirus pandemic.
“We know that the program we’ve been developing over the past six years is replicable, but we just haven’t gotten there yet,” says Klawinski. “We are confident that our model will soon get to the point where other schools will want to consider following our lead, and we’ll have a ripple effect out to other schools in our region and across the country.”
Bruneau, at Morris Arboretum, sums up the benefits of being outdoors: “Nature play encourages kids to use all of their senses and connect to the broader environment. How does the leaf/bark/pebble feel? How does it smell? Where did it come from and how is it a part of the environment where it was found? This is a much richer experience than indoor play with manufactured toys.”