By Lars Gustafson, Teacher
A fear of nature is hazardous to children’s health, said child advocate and journalist Richard Louv, the keynote speaker at this year’s conference for the California Association for the Education of Young Children (CAEYC). This past April, teachers from throughout the state gathered in sunny Long Beach, Calif., to learn more about a wide range of topics such as brain development, self-reflective teaching, curriculum ideas, the importance of play and many others.
A performance by a popular children’s music group from Santa Cruz, the Banana Slug String Band, kicked off the conference. The crowd of about 1,000 was dancing and singing along to the group’s nature-inspired rhythms and melodies. The performance drew attention to the wonders of the world and inspired appreciation of its beauty. The band offered a nice segue into the meat of the address that followed.
Louv spoke about his book, Last Child in the Woods: Saving Our Children from Nature Deficit Disorder. He describes this self-coined condition as the wide range of behavioral problems children experience as a result of decreased time spent outdoors. He noted that children used to play outdoors for hours on end, but these days don’t get outside as much as they used to. He cited the trend of decreased recess time in primary schools and the 25 percent decline in National Park attendance since the mid ‘90s. He blamed sensationalist media coverage for creating a generation of fearful parents. As a result, children have learned that nature is an unsafe environment.
Louv explained that the benefits of outdoor experience are numerous. He said, “Nature offers children an older, larger world separate from parents.” It offers them the opportunity to create their own games and make their own rules. This helps with conflict management skills because these rules can be negotiated when playing with other children. He added, “Time spent playing make-believe helps children develop executive function.” This is defined as “the collection of brain processes whose role is to guide thought and behavior in accordance with internally generated goals or plans.” Children also become healthier when they get more exercise, and they tend to eat healthier too. Moreover, nature has a calming effect that has been shown to improve the symptoms of attention deficit disorder. He related a story about the photographer Ansel Adams, who was expelled from school because he had difficulty paying attention. His parents decided to help him by giving him a natural education. Together they visited many California State Parks and gradually his symptoms eased. The rest is history.
Louv ended his address by stating the importance of sending children a more positive message about nature. We’re constantly hearing about the present state of the climate and grim predictions about the future due to global warming. He suggests we show children the wonder of nature and allow them the time to get out and enjoy it. He borrowed a statement from Martin Luther King Jr. by saying, “Any movement will fail if it doesn’t paint a picture of a world people want to go to.” He also suggested that although parents’ fears won’t decrease easily, those concerned can support organizations that encourage natural experiences, such as schools and parks.
Another workshop focused on the indoor and outdoor classroom environment and how to make it an attractive, comfortable place in which learning can be maximized. The presenters were Jean Barbre, EdD, an early childhood education coordinator for the Orange County Department of Education, and Ingrid Anderson, adjunct faculty in the Human Development Department of Irvine Valley College. They began by leading the group on a visualization of spaces from childhood.
First they asked the participants to imagine a place where they felt comfortable. The common characteristics here included a relationship to nature where there was plenty of space to roam, and a feeling of ownership over that space. Workshop attendees felt secure enough there to create their own games and rules, and act independently.
Then the group imagined an uncomfortable space, which produced feelings of darkness and disorder. The presenters noted the importance of creating an indoor environment that is free of clutter and too much visual stimulation. Keeping shelves stocked but not overstocked decreases the visual stimulation into a realm that helps keep a child’s brain more at rest, and thus more able to learn. Using more muted and neutral colors as opposed to primary colors also achieves this goal.
Finally, the participants imagined a space that held a special connection with an adult. In this space they felt a sense of belonging to a community. They felt trusted and safe in this space where the rules were flexible enough for them to make choices of their own.The conference exhibition hall was full of new educational materials, books for children and professionals, and music. It provided an informal setting to connect with colleagues in the field and share experiences.
Another workshop focused on the differences between male and female brains. The presenter was Christine Griswold, adjunct instructor at the Citrus College Child Development Center in Glendora, Calif., and mother of two children, a girl and a boy. Griswold started out by stressing the idea that the information she was about to share wasn’t intended to classify all girls and boys into two completely different columns. On the contrary, she would be noting general gender trends that tend to be true. With that in mind, she said that girls and boys come to school with different strengths. Not only should teachers encourage them to use these strengths, but they should also help them overcome their weaknesses.
From there she talked about brain development and structure. The right hemisphere of the boy’s brain typically develops more quickly than that of a girl’s brain. This means that they can have a strong degree of mechanical and spatial reasoning early on. This is why many boys like to understand how things work and also why they can be so physical in their play. Giving boys more space for their physical play allows them an outlet for their physical energy and also helps them develop self-regulation skills.Conversely, the left hemisphere of the brain tends to develop more quickly in girls. This side is responsible for language skills like reading and writing. This is why some girls learn to write and to recognize letters early on. They seek out these experiences because their brains are wired for them earlier in development.
Griswold went on to discuss further differences between the sexes, but continued stressing the importance of giving boys and girls the same opportunities. Doing so allows them to explore the areas in which they need more experience.
This conference provided an amazing opportunity to learn more about children and how to support them more effectively. It also connected people in the field to each other and provided a stimulating and rewarding experience.