My 8-year-old daughter came home from school this week incredibly excited about a dirt-baby she created. After imagining her sneaking off during recess to the mud pile behind the playground and creating some kind of snowman-like creature out of mud, I realized she was talking about a class project where she got to take old pantyhose, fill them with dirt and grass seed and creates a baby-like form that will spring to life as the sees sprout in a few days.
For her, this is culminating a week of talking about embryos at the breakfast table, dissecting each snow pea pod be fore she eats it at dinner and showing me the cotyledon in her edamame at lunch. And although I’d rather not talk about embryos or watch her dissect her lunch, I am happy for her. I’m happy that her teacher has sparked in her an interest in nature and science and happy that even though her class is not outside, enjoying the nature, her teacher has found a way to bring nature inside to her. Because what better way to learn about nature and seeds and life then to experience the magic of watching it grow right before your eyes? This is a start, and if she can love dissecting a bean in class (and at the dinner table), then when she gets a chance to go to summer camp at Lewis Ginter Botanical Garden this summer and spend the entire day outside taking a hands-on approach to nature, then she’ll be in heaven.
Which brings us back to how much children need the outdoors to really value it and learn from it. And the question: what is the value of that hands on learning outdoors? Can it be replaced or substituted with more book knowledge? I bet the founders of our public education system never imagined a time when children would be so removed from farming and the process of growing food that children might not realize exactly where food comes from (other than a box.) Part of what kids need to know to be good stewards of the environment and to know how vital and intertwined our lives are to plants, is how connected all of earth’s ecosystems are.
Yesterday, The Washington Post wrote an article about the No Child Left Inside movement and how many schools in the Washington, D. C. area are incorporating hands-on gardening into the curriculum. Students at Hollins Meadows school in Fairfax County get the added benefit of having their teachers incorporate all sorts of lessons into gardening, being outdoors and nature. If you ask kids, they will tell you — this is the best kind of learning.
Students measure worms in math classes and plant peanuts when learning about Virginia history. Reading time happens in an outdoor courtyard where the walls are painted like library shelves. Cinnamon basil plants are growing hydroponically in the science lab from seeds that astronauts flew into space. The children are growing seedlings to sell on Earth Day, an early lesson in entrepreneurship.
As more children struggle with obesity and awareness grows about global warming, outdoor learning is becoming a popular education concept.
Environmentalists are lobbying Congress to attach a “No Child Left Inside” provision to the No Child Left Behind law when it is reauthorized. The provision would set aside money for opportunities, including gardens, for children to learn about the natural world.
Here at Lewis Ginter, we will continue the conversation with No Child Left Inside: Restoring Nature to Early Childhood (April 28-29). Movement leaders Jane Kirkland, author of the award-winning children’s nature series, Take a Walk books, Robin Moore, Director of the Natural Learning Initiative and Professor of Landscape Architecture, North Carolina State University, Yusuf Burgess, environmental educator, State of New York Department of Environmental Conservation and board member, Children and Nature Network and Chip & Ashley Donahue, founders of Kids in the Valley, Adventuring (KIVA) will inform and inspire, teachers and and parents alike on the value of children being in nature. I hope you can join us for this conversation.
As for my daughter, she is most excited that Tracy Kane,the author The Fairy Houses Series™ books will be there to inspire her and her friends to build fairy houses at the hands-on family event, Homespun Fun for Families. I do believe she literally jumped up and down when I told her that Tracy Kane, “the Fairy Lady” was coming to Lewis Ginter. Six months ago, for her 8-year-old birthday, her dad and I took her, her brother and 12 of her friends into the woods to make Fairy houses and it was “her best birthday ever.” This is a memory that won’t fade for her and her friends. In fact, they speak about it often.
My husband, the preschool teacher, wrote about his experiences guiding the kids (including boys) at the birthday party through this activity. His blog post, The Magic of Childhood & Nature, talks about the experience. This party, incorporating a fairy scavenger hunt, was inspired by Tracy Kane’s work and another book: Childhood and Nature: Design Principles for Educators, by David Sobel.
Meanwhile, as I’m learning more and more about what kids need, I’m sending the kids out in the back yard more often, and keeping the TV off as much as I can. I’ve seen the difference nature can make. Children are drawn to create miniature worlds, mud pies and dirt babies. TV just teaches them to turn off their minds. The amazing thing to me, is that once you get them outside, you don’t have to do much, loving nature comes naturally to them.