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WANT YOUR KIDS TO GET INTO HARVARD? TELL 'EM TO GO OUTSIDE!

About the Author

Richard Louv is Co-Founder and Chairman Emeritus of the Children & Nature Network, an organization supporting the international movement to connect children, their families and their communities to the natural world. He is the author of nine books, including "Last Child in the Woods: Saving Our Children from Nature-Deficit Disorder" and "The Nature Principle." His newest book, "Vitamin N," offers 500 ways to build a nature-rich life. In 2008, he was awarded the Audubon Medal.

First of two in a series

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 well.

A few months ago, 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.

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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.

Last November, 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…”

As for the research on nature experience and learning, that too is expanding. (More about that in Part Two) Many of the available studies describe correlations rather than cause and effect. But parents and educators certainly have enough evidence to act.

Out-of-school educators are already taking action, 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.

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Richard Louv is the author of THE NATURE PRINCIPLE: Human Restoration and the End of Nature-Deficit Disorder and LAST CHILD IN THE WOODS: Saving Our Children from Nature-Deficit Disorder. He is Chairman Emeritus of The Children and Nature Network.

18 Comments

  1. My post today was on the need to return to nature by using colors in our homes to bring the outside in. Please take the time to read it on my blog, http://www.livinginperfectharmony. As part of humanity, we must both singly and collectively reconnect with nature.

    Reply
  2. My wife and I have our kids outdoors all the time. Our son is 4 and daughter is 1.5 years old. Though we live in Seattle we are adamant about our children spending ample amounts of time outdoors in all four seasons. We visit local parks and take extended weekend trips to National Parks and National Forests. We visit local farms so they know where food comes from. To make the experiences interesting, our son has an outdoor kit of binoculars, magnifying glass, paper and crayons, and compass that fit in his backpack. I agree that he’ll learn more outside of school than in school.

    Reply
  3. It’s true. Someone somewhere has created systems that have failed and continue to FAIL.
    Again, yesterday I watched as groups of kids ( not being misbehaved as such) were on our local common field, enjoying each others company , having a giggle etc… and they just walked away leaving a whole heap of rubbish on the ground from their snacks and take aways.

    It makes me weep and angry everytime

    WHAT HAVE EDUCATIONAL FACILITIES CALLED SCHOOLS BEEN TEACHING EVERYONE?

    They dont KNOW the country code, they dont KNOW that they are polluting the environment and killing wildlife… EITHER they don’t know it or they are vindictive cruel and uncaring. WHICH ONE IS IT?

    NATURE DEFICIT DISORDER… as you so rightly say! IT’S FRIGHTENING!

    Reply
  4. I completely agree. As a teacher, parent, and hobby farmer, I have become convinced that authentic outdoors experiences such as everyone had everyday two hundred years ago, are essential for children to learn how to THINK. Virtual reality doesnt train and form the human brain to be able to really think as life does. More and more children are unable to think abstractly but I believe that is because they havent lived concretely. On the extreme end, we are seeing more and more mental illness in young people.

    Reply
    • Richard Louv

      Terrific and true line: “More and more children are unable to think abstractly….because they haven’t lived concretely.”

      Reply
  5. During one of our fall outdoor education sessions, a 6th grader approached his teacher and said, “Man, I love it out here. This is the first time in my life I have ever felt smart.”

    If we lose outdoor experiences for our kids–even in the form of recess–then we are definitely going to lose “the race”.

    Outdoor education, formal or informal, is essential to the success of our students and to the “thriveability” of our global community in the future.

    Thank you, Richard, for such a great post 🙂

    Reply
  6. This is the reason why we sold everything exactly 6 years ago and moved with our 3 boys, then ages 7, 8 and 10, to the jungles of Costa Rica–to run free in the wilderness, enjoy the natural world, do service work, meet and work with indigenous healers and become bi-lingual.

    When people (such as my in-laws) responded in horror that we were pulling our kids out of one of the best public school systems in the US, I responded, “My kids will end up getting into Harvard because of this very experience!” (Not that I care if they DO get in to Harvard. What I care about is that they are happy, fulfilled, contributing members of the global society.)

    In the years that we lived in Costa Rica, the boys and I created an environmental education web show, Super Natural Adventures (www.supernaturaladventures.com) Check it out!

    We moved back to the US in January. Boys are now 13, 14 and 16. 16-year-old got highest possible score on AP Spanish Language exam and is now a Spanish teaching assistant at his high school. He is looking at a career in the emerging fields of medicinal plants and naturopathy. Each of our boys has more service hours (doing actual service work, not going on an exotic holiday for a week) than their entire class combined. Most importantly, they are passionate about nature, the environment, and have an understanding of the natural world unrivaled by any of their American peers. They are independent and personally responsible. My children do not need an adult to organize their “fun.” The only time I have ever heard them say they are bored is now, in regards to sitting at a desk for 8 hours in school.

    Richard Louv, my children are living proof that what you preach is true. Get kids in nature and their minds, hearts and spirits expand!

    Reply
  7. I recently enrolled in a grad level biological community analysis class with a group of about 20 students doing their MS in Environmental Science. Most of the class had grown up in the region. The professor began by asking us to stand still on the first field trip and identify the predominant bird call we were listening to. After about 2 minutes of silence everyone was shaking their heads. It was a mockingbird.

    I immigrated to California from Africa ten years ago and thought I would know the least but I was the only one who could ID birds in the field. The class couldn’t ID a Great Heron or the flocks of Acorn woodpeckers either. I have learned that it’s not just a lack of time spent in the woods that causes this, but lack of a person to point them out as well.

    Reply
  8. Even if Nature didn’t have a positive effect on development, even if things keep going awry with the numbers of kids exposed to Nature, one kid’s attachment to the out-of-doors could still get him/her into Harvard, or at least Amherst — just for the sheer rarity of that interest.

    Reply
  9. Thank you for facilitating discussion of this topic, and for highlighting the excellent NRC report– Learning Science in Informal Environments: Places, People and Pursuits. It may be read online for free at:

    http://www.nap.edu/catalog.php?record_id=12190

    Solutions to the identified problems you have named will emerge as more people have direct experiences confronting them. Change is occurring, and awareness of the need is growing, but time is short and there is tough competition from the virtual world.

    Reply
  10. Thanks so much for reaffirming the decision we made last year to move our 8 and 10 year old to an EIC charter school! As friends from our previous school were cramming for finals last spring, I went on a field trip to purchase plants at a nursery, funded by a grant, with my third grader’s class. They were replacing and improving a creekbed behind the school and were given certain criteria ie. deer friendly, moist conditions, price calculations etc. , which they carefully used to assess and make their selections. I was so impressed that they knew so much and were able to incorporate the different areas they studied into this one project. That was the moment I felt completely assured that we made the best decision for our family and the future of our children. We are very much looking forward to starting a new year after a long weekend of camping!
    Check out the website…

    http://www.sevengenerationsschool.org/

    Reply
  11. So true Richard! I see it every day at Earthshine Mountain Lodge where I work as naturalist and outdoor educator. Children and adults who have never been in the woods, never gotten dirty, they are often afraid to go into the woods because of the things that they have HEARD about that live in the woods. I once had a girl say “I don’t do nature.”
    I blame the media and Hollywood and the parents for believing the media and Hollywood. Then, after I take them into the woods for even just a few hours in search of the truth of the forest–they change…their eyes brighten, the questions start and they hunger for more–and then they come back year after year to the lodge to continue their quest for nature knowledge.
    A great example happened just yesterday. Several children were on an elevated boardwalk above a garden area and saw a large Copperhead on the ground below crawling in the mulch beside the building. They were enthralled and wanted to learn all that they could about it…but the teachers and parents were saying…get back, move away…like it could fly up and bite them from 20 feet away…the elders were making the situation much worse because they were over reacting–sadly the children sense their fear and it influences their actions and beliefs. I knew that I had to reverse the situation before it became an anti-snake party so I calmly walked under the boardwalk and gently captured the snake. I captured it because, although it was not immediately dangerous it could have posed a later risk because of its venomous nature. At that point I decided to do a snake presentation as part of our evening program. Later, the children were able to view the Copperhead–in an approved venomous snake enclosure–from only a few inches away. They were able to see that it was not aggressive and that it was a beautiful and really frightened creature. Then I let them touch a 6 foot long ratsnake (non-venomous) and so many of them said–“WOW! snakes aren’t slimy, they are soft, smooth” and “they are so beautiful!” and “the Copperhead looks scared–not mean like people have told me.” “I am glad we have snakes eating the mice and rats or we wouldn’t have anything to eat.” It was awesome!
    I grabbed that teachable moment and ran with it. Now, 85 6 graders and their teachers and parents have had an experience that they will hopefully remember for their entire lives, an experience that was real, true and positive and hopefully that made a difference in the way they view nature and our connection to nature.
    I have to give credit to the teachers and parents because even though a couple of them voiced their concerns and fears about the liabilities and possibilities that MIGHT happen and some spoke of their childhood phobias–they all saw the value in my program and assisted me like the expert educators that they are.

    I totally agree with you Richard, we must get our kids outside and teach them about the nature in our own backyards and all over the world…or all of our backyards will be mono cultures of green grass or paved parking lots and nature will be something you read about in books or visit on manicured trails with a guide…if that day comes I do not want to be a part of it.

    Thank you for all of your hard work connecting children and adults with nature.

    I just watched this amazing video about the value of teachers of all kinds and I wanted to share it with you. It brought tears to my eyes.

    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=haUj3qUncOs

    Take care,
    Steve O’Neil
    Naturalist and Outdoor Educator and
    Executive Director of
    Earthshine Nature Programs
    based out of Earthshine Mountain Lodge
    Lake Toxaway, NC

    Earthshine

    Reply
  12. I was born in San Francisco to a single parent mother with two sisters and I was born in that part of San Francisco that doesn’t exactly conjure up Russian Hill cable cars clanging up steep hills. I credit my appreciation of nature to the Boy Scouts of America. It gave me a great appreciation for nature because we were always going camping. I went to summer camp, camp Royaneh in the Armstrong Redwood Forest every summer. To this day I love nature so much and I have a fetish for Redwood trees. To be in a climax forest when there is no one around and to be in the presence of trees that are 1,000 years old is amazing. Everything is so quite and you feel so small and the air is so fresh. When you hear your thoughts like a loud voice in your head you feel so connected to something that is greater than you and you suddenly realize you’re in natures cathedral.

    Reply
  13. As a 25 year teaching veteran and a passionate science and environmental education advocate it sickens me to watch my own districts interpretation of NCLB. Not only do they discourage the promotion of environmental education but virtually eliminate almost all science education and anything environmental in in K-6. This past year administrator comments have included: “Gone are the days that you can raise caterpillars in the classroom or raise frogs… we need to focus on our school improvement core subjects reading, writing and math…” or after several teachers received grants and funding for a variety of outdoor projects only to have a district administrator say “… these grants and projects my be beneficial to you personally but we do not see a benefit to our district…” (As a result of this comment, which seemed to reflect the districts new lack of support, we ended up returning over $12,000.00 and a national award.) And the most recent comment made at a faculty meeting “… teachers primary focus is to get the required 90 minutes a day of reading in, 60 minutes a day of writing and 60 minutes a day of math, no exceptions… whatever is leftover is to be used for science and social studies (but lets not forget the lunch and recess 45 minutes per day, the 40 minutes daily PE/Art/or Music, transition times to and from these places, restroom breaks numerous assemblies, not much left . When asked about integrating science and social studies into reading, writing and math, using science or environmental education as a motivator, and inspiration, etc. the answer was no.

    It seems that the only ones that believe in the benefits of science and outdoor education and play are the teachers in my district that know their students and what motivates, inspires and fosters learning not the administrators. They not only “can’t see the forest for the trees” they cannot even see the trees. We are loosing the battle in the Midwestern middle size town America and the ones that loose the most are our children!

    Reply
  14. Dear Mr. Louv,

    Is it possible to learn more about your meeting with biology professors at North Carolina Central University? I recently became the Executive Director at Schoolhouse of Wonder, a Durham-based nonprofit that provides outdoor education and adventures to school-aged children. We’re extremely interested in developing a partnership with NCCU and would love a receptive place to start.

    Great thanks for your passion and work.

    Wendy Tonker, Executive Director
    Schoolhouse of Wonder

    p.s. It looks like there may be a small typo at the beginning of the article. North Carolina Central University is listed as as Central North Carolina University.

    Reply
  15. I’m guessing this is even more true of students who live in urban areas. Growing up in a rural area, the shortcut to school for me involved a walk through a small forest.

    However, urban students have to specifically plan trips to the wilderness.

    Reply
  16. Yep…..couldnt agree more. Yesterday I was describing to my 11 year old my sixth grade project of finding bugs/insects, identifying them, placing them on a board and presenting to class. It was the most fun I ever had and couldnt wait to find the real obscure ones……

    Reply
  17. It’s interesting. I recently read an article in The Chronicle which states —

    ‘There’s an amazing moment in one of Michael Sandel’s popular “Justice” classes. The Harvard philosopher is lecturing on John Rawls’s view of meritocracy, challenging the assumption that life’s playing field is ever level. Sandel even takes on the idea that we should be given full credit for our hard work. He asks the students in his large class to raise their hands if they are first-borns. About three-quarters of the hands go up. He’s been asking the same question for years and getting the same overwhelming show of hands’.

    The theory here is 2 fold; Children who are born first tend to be leader and/or children who have less siblings are better educated.

    It’s an intriguing subject. But there are exceptions to every rule take Dawn Loggins for example –http://howtogetintoharvard.net/harvard-stories/ — There will always be a multitude of factors which dictate a childs academic success.

    But great article.

    Reply

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