September is back-to-school month, and the chanting begins: Drill, test, lengthen the school day, skip recess, cancel field trips, and by all means discourage free time for (gasp!) self-directed play.
Is that approach working, particularly in science learning? Not so much.
A while back, I met with a dozen biology professors at North Carolina Central University. They were deeply concerned about the dramatic deterioration of student knowledge of what’s out there: these students can tell you all about the Amazon rain forest, but nothing about the plants and animals of the neighborhoods in which they live.
When researching Last Child in the Woods, I heard a similar complaint from Paul Dayton, a prominent oceanographer and professor in the Scripps Marine Life Research Group at Scripps Institution of Oceanography in La Jolla.
Dayton is a harsh critic of a trend in higher education, the movement away from traditional biology toward the kind of molecular sciences and bioengineering that can produce products in the lab that can be patented by research universities.
The ethical issues of that process concern him, but what worries him even more is the growing ignorance of nature that he sees in young people.
“In a few years there will be nobody left to identify several major groups of marine organisms,” he said. “I wish I were exaggerating.”During a later visit with Dayton, we were looking out of his window at the famous Scripps Pier. I asked him if he had ever thought to engaging a nearby high school. Maybe Scripps could bring the students from that school to the pier or even out on the Scripps explorer ships.
“I tried that.” He said one school administrator’s response was, “Oh, no, we’ve become so sophisticated in the teaching of science, that our students don’t have to go outside anymore.”
That attitude is more common than some of us would like to believe.
In November, 2010, two Oregon State University researchers, writing in American Scientist, made the case that “an ever-growing body of evidence demonstrates that most science is learned outside of school.” In “The 95 Percent Solution,” John H. Falk and Lynn D. Dierking write, “The ‘school-first’ paradigm is so pervasive that few scientists, educators or policy makers question it. This despite two important facts:
Average Americans spend less than 5 percent of their life in classrooms, and an ever-growing body of evidence demonstrates that most science is learned outside of school.”Falk and Dierking contend that “a major educational advantage enjoyed by the U.S. relative to the rest of the world” is its out-of-school learning landscape, including museums, libraries, zoos, aquariums, national parks, 4-H clubs, scouting, and, I would add, nature centers, state and local parks, and the nearby nature of our neighborhoods. They add, “The sheer quantity and importance of this science learning landscape lies in plain sight but mostly out of mind.” Rather than increasing school time, perhaps we should be investing in expanding quality, out-of-school experiences…”
Emerging research, some of it specific to out-of-school learning, some of it to the impact of time spent in natural environments on cognitive functioning, support that contention. A 2009 report by the National Research Council, Learning Science in Informal Environments: Places, People and Pursuits, “describes a range of evidence demonstrating that even everyday experiences such as a walk in the park contribute to people’s knowledge and interest in science and the environment…” Researcher and educator David Sobel calls place-based education, whether in a local park or the surrounding community, “one of the knights in shining armor.” Students in such programs typically outperform their peers in traditional classrooms.
The benefits accrue in nature-immersed classrooms and natural schoolyards and well beyond the school walls or school boundaries. Schools that use outdoor classrooms and other forms of nature-based experiential education have reported significant student gains in social studies, science, language arts, and math.
Children are more likely to invent their own games in green play spaces rather than on flat playgrounds or playing fields. And green play spaces also suit a wider array of students and promote social inclusion, regardless of gender, race, class, or intellectual ability. In addition, studies confirm, they were safer. One study found that so-called at-risk students in week-long outdoor camp settings scored significantly better on science testing than in the typical classroom.
Some of the best-known research comes from the Human-Environment Research Laboratory at the University of Illinois, where researchers have discovered that children as young as 5 show a significant reduction in the symptoms of attention deficit/hyperactivity disorder when they engaged with nature. And a yet-to-be published study of over 500 Chicago schools suggests that greening our schools may be one of the most cost-effective ways to raise student test scores.
Many of the available studies describe correlations rather than causality. But the body of evidence is growing, and parents and educators have enough evidence to act.Some parents and teachers are already taking action. So are out-of-school educators, individually and programmatically. Consider Lori Kiesser’s program, Inside the Outdoors, in Orange County, California, which serves 150,000 children each year with a nature-based STEM education afterschool program. A growing network of grassroots volunteers and professionals, natural teachers and pediatricians work every day at getting kids and their families connected to nature.
Many of us hope that the tide is turning, that educators, parents and young people, too, are becoming more aware of the value of out-of-school experience and self-directed exploration and play, especially in natural settings.
Want your kids to get into Harvard? Tell ’em to go outside.