This is the first installment of a two-part series.
A plague of digitalization is sweeping through American youth, infecting all whom it touches. Teens quake in horror when their cell phones are out of their grasp. Only a regular diet of media stimulation fends off the pain of social isolation.
But hark, I feel a breeze on my face. Possible salvation hides playfully in the lush meadows and behind boulders. Strands of laughter beckon from the leafy glade. Before we follow the laughter, let’s imagine a similar plague and its cure a century ago.
Jacob is twelve years old growing up in Pittsburgh in 1909. He walks the thronged streets on the way to school amidst the clatter of carriages, the shrill screech of the steam whistle, the roar of steam from escape pipes. He weaves amongst piles of bricks and mortar, mountains of coal waiting to be loaded into blast furnaces. He coughs as he inhales the gases and particulates of burnt coal and wood and the villainous stench from thousands of factories. Few trees, fewer birds survive the daily onslaught of America at work. To avoid the miasma of the streets, Jacob spends his afternoons squirreled away inside with a book. With summer comes a glimpse of salvation.
His mother, fearful of his pale complexion and persistent cough, boards him onto the train and sends him to Camp Idlewild run by his uncle on Lake Winnipesaukee in New Hampshire. She responds to the exhortations of physicians of the day, challenging,
“Young man, get out into the open! The world demands staying qualities. Do not, oh, do not, spend your vacation time in a hotel, or Pullman car…The great cry of ‘Back to Nature’ that is spreading abroad over our land is full of deep significance, and the heeding of Nature’s ever-calling voice, and an adaptation of our lives to her laws, is going to become a salvation of the American race.”
After the long train ride, and the carriage ride from the station, Jacob finds himself sequestered in solitude, far from the madding crowd. Beyond even meadows and farmland, with Henry, Andrew and George from Worcester, Schenectady and Waterbury, they are,
“alone with nature, surrounded by old primeval things. Tall forest trees, mountain and valley are on the right hand and on the left. Before us, stretching away for miles, is a beautiful lake, its waters calm and placid, giving back the bright heavens, the old woods, the fleecy clouds that drift across the sky, from away down in its quiet depths.”
Here, away from the woes of industrial America and amidst the healing powers of Nature, he and his female campmates across the cove, can become truer men and women.
At the beginning of the twentieth century, untempered industrialization and rampant deforestation prompted the conservation and preservation movements. The creation of Yellowstone and Yosemite National Parks at the end of the 19th century, the creation of the National Audubon Society in 1905, the passing of the Weeks Act (creating the National Forest system) in 1911 and the creation of the National Park Service in 1916 all were part of the political movement to preserve the natural world from the onslaught of commercialization and the plundering of natural resources. Similarly, to save our children, the first summer camps were founded in the 1880s and ’90s.
The founding of the American Nature Study Society in 1908, and the founding of the Boy Scouts in 1910 soon followed by the Girl Scouts in 1912, were part of a social movement to preserve the virtue of children’s contact with nature. Parents had become concerned that “A new generation of children, especially boys, they fretted, were missing out on the character-building, health-promoting experiences of hardy rural life: some even mentioned the peril of ‘dying of indoor-ness.’” (Petrzela, 2017)
Riding in on the heels of industrialization and the sprawl of suburbanization, the new demon at the beginning of the twenty-first century is digitalization.
Many elementary school-aged children spend as much as eight hours engaged with screens each day (computers, television, iPhones, gaming consoles) and maybe, (if lucky) 30 minutes outside in the natural world. Jacob today will wake up, check social media on his phone in bed, watch a bit of TV in the kitchen while eating Frosted Flakes, listen to music with headphones on the school bus. In school, he’ll do three hours of smarter balanced testing on a school computer and then, as a break from testing, watch an online video about predation in Africa. Maybe he’ll go outside for 20 minutes of recess. After school, he’ll spend two hours playing Overwatch, a team-based shooter game with Mateo and Caleb. If he’s lucky, he’ll have dinner with his parents, and then after dinner, he’ll do an hour of homework on his laptop before re-watching a couple of Game of Thrones episodes. Why, some 12-year-old boys spend 8 hours a day just playing Fortnight!
Addiction to the digital world is causing numerous forms of health problems for children—greater rates of depression, more social isolation, lack of physical development and increases in obesity, increased rates of myopia, increased learning deficits in preschool children, decreased Vitamin D due to lack of sunlight exposure, premature thinning of the neocortex. Sigh. Parents are freaked out about their children becoming digital addicts and they’re avid about finding educational alternatives that set their children on a different path.
Similar to the response to industrialization at the beginning of the 20th century, the nature-based education movement in the 21st century intends to extract our children from the clutches of computerization. In the face of all the bad news, (I admit I got satellite radio in 2017 to avoid listening to the news on my car radio), there are a few things that make me hopeful in spite of it all. The nature-based childhood movement is one of those things. Before our young children are falling asleep with their iPhones, before they have hoards of Facebook friends, before they are hypnotized by their Netflix accounts, let’s saturate them in nature.
Let’s help them create an environmental identity before they have a social media identity. Let’s send them to a nature preschool or forest kindergarten. Let’s send them to a public school where they spend one day a week in the woods. Let’s create communities that have a preschool to high school commitment to nature connection.
When my book Beyond Ecophobia was published in 1996, nature-infused education was in its infancy. Today, 28 years later, it has grown up. It is moving out of its parents’ homes and it’s setting up shop in rural towns, suburbia and big cities around the country and the world.
So take my hand and join me on a ramble to visit some of the hopeful places around the United States where children play joyfully in nature and freedom rings.
We’ll begin on the fringes of Chicagoland, about an hour west of downtown, Here, the Natural Beginnings Early Childhood Program offers immersion in almost 400 acres of prairie, woodland, and gentle creeks for three to six-year-old students in the Kendall County Forest Preserve. Until 2018, the director was Megan Gessler, one of the premier nature-based early childhood educators in the Midwest, who now directs a similar program at The Morton Arboretum. I am indebted to her for thr following description of compelling learning in February 2017. You can read her whole description of this adventure in The Sky Above, The Mud Below, a forthcoming book to be published by Redleaf Press in spring, 2020.
One of the defining aspects of nature preschools is that the educators are committed to playing and working outside with children for the majority of the school day. The outdoors is (most of the time) the classroom, far from the fluorescent-lit, plastic-toyed, germ-laden air of the indoor space. Like the Post Office motto, “Neither rain nor hail nor sleet nor snow nor rain nor heat of day nor gloom of night stays these couriers from the swift completion of their appointed rounds,” these teachers and children are out in all kinds of weather unless high winds or shockingly cold temperatures keep them inside (though there was a provocative picture circulating on the internet during last winter’s polar vortex of Minnesota preschoolers outside in 30 below wind chills.) Contrary to the notion that “Oh we have to keep the children inside when it’s rainy or they’ll get sick,” nature preschool teachers believe that having the children outside in all weathers builds children’s immune systems and makes them healthier.
So it was on a winter outing on the northern edge of the forest preserve when Megan and her students stumbled upon a geocache, a metal box sequestered in the crevice of an oak tree, filled with gold and silver coins. “Pirate treasure!” the children all surmised. The children all assumed pirate names, Captain Orange Hissing Cat and First Mate Purple Coneflower, adopted pirate jargon, “Where we be going next, Captain Megan?” and speculated that there had to be more treasure stashed around the preserve. “Methinks thar be more treasure in the woods over to the other side of that crick,” a child speculated. Captain Megan wondered how they could all get across the creek without icy cold water filling their boots and freezing their toes, and the crew pondered for a while and decided they needed a raft for the crossing. (Ah, the spirit of Huck Finn is alive and well.) Seizing on this great problem-solving opportunity, the captain promised they’d try to figure out how to make a raft.
The next day, back at the indoor classroom, the crew decided to collect a lot of big sticks and adhere them together with glue. A whole mess of glue. Which really didn’t work. And so they trundled off to a nearby stream to think through this engineering challenge.
“We talked about the size of the raft needed and the scale of the sticks that could hold them. How many students would be on the raft at once? How far would the raft need to travel? What size logs? How many logs? Where would we find them? What would hold them together? The children were abuzz with ideas. It was almost as if I could see their minds whirring with activity. They could hardly keep from shouting their excited ideas at one another.”
Can you see what’s going on here? Discovery of the geocache initiated a pirate fantasy that the teacher decided to embrace whole-heartedly. The outdoors setting, richer in exploratory suggestiveness than the indoor setting, prompts the children to want to find more treasure over there, on the other side of the stream. In the spirit of true emergent curriculum, Megan realizes this is a grand opportunity for STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) learning, and challenges them with a real problem. How can we get across? This is what Thoreau meant when he talked about seeing castles in the air and building foundations underneath them. This is what early childhood education is supposed to be.
“One student suggested that we ‘bang’ the sticks together with a hammer and nails. And one child remembered a story that we had recently read, The Mitten, in which Baba knitted a really strong mitten for her grandson. She thought that maybe we could knit the logs together to hold them tight. They conferred with each other and all were in agreement that the sticks should be about the same height – as tall as themselves. They also decided that they should be as wide around as a fist. They thought that the raft should only hold about one or two children at a time and that they could use a stick to shove the raft across the creek and then they could use a rope to pull it back to the other side for more.”
Remarkably, and with the right materials (hammers, nails, bandages, fabric scraps) and teacher guidance at the right point, the children managed to create a raft about six feet long by two feet wide over the course of the next few days. Another problem then presented itself—how to get the raft to the creek? It was ungainly and heavy and the creek was ¾ of a mile away along a rough trail.
They tried to use a wagon, but the raft was too long to fit. So, they used the teacher’s heavy backpacks to weigh down the front of the raft on the bottom of the wagon while the students who walked behind the wagon held up the other end. Through trial and error and good team communication, they ended up placing scouts in front of the wagon to pick up any logs that would be in the way of the wagon’s wheels. Once they got to the creek, they placed the raft across it at a narrow point where it became more like a bridge due to the low water level. Success! It worked! They beamed with delight at their own triumph!
Megan’s excitement at the children’s success was soon replaced with consternation. Now that they’ve crossed the stream, she wondered, what happens when they don’t find any more pirates’ treasure? Will the exhilaration of success be dashed on the rocks of disappointment? But remarkably, only 15 feet away, they come upon a swale that had recently been underwater when the water level was higher. When the creek receded, it had left behind dozens of huge angular ice chunks that glittered in the sunlight like diamonds. The children are thrilled. “Ahoy pirates, we have found our jewels! There be pirate treasure in Illinois after all!”
Needless to say, this couldn’t have happened in the church basement preschool. Or even in the high quality, university lab school early childhood center, unless the teachers and children were outside in the winter, open to the prompts of children’s imagination in the ever-changing forest. Megan summarizes saying,
Sometimes I have to pinch myself when an inquiry cycle is just so perfect…. All I needed was faith, trust, and a little bit of pixie dust to aid them on their journey. As teachers at a nature-based program, we follow child inquiry. We provide the provocation, observe where the interest lies, look at possible lines of development, provide more provocation and watch where it takes them. By supplying the proper environment, tools, and dialog, these children were able to follow their self-created pirate adventure. For science, the pirates found their treasure, brought it back to study, and explored the properties of water/ice. They utilized technology through the use of tools such as hammer, nails, glue, and fabric. They honed their engineering skills while creating and recreating the raft. And they developed math skills when they learned how to compare and measure the size of sticks.
Megan’s comments here get at an important understanding about nature-based early childhood education. There’s no sacrifice of classic academic goals. The conventional aspirations to literacy and math readiness, learning to get along with classmates, developing creative thinking are all happening. But in addition, there’s scientific thinking, bonding with the natural world, physical fitness and the development of grit, perseverance and resilience. And not a digital device anywhere in sight.
This same form of preschool in nature is happening across America in country and city, in blue states and red states. Tiny Trees Preschool operates in nine different urban parks in Seattle, giving urban children “the gift of a joyfully muddy childhood.” In New York City, Brooklyn Forest offers parent/caregiver and young child programs in Prescott Park and Central Park. Hot tea and freshly baked treats are part of the program to assure coziness in the out-of-doors. Way down south, Peruvian-born Patricia Leon directs the Miami Nature Preschool amidst the live oaks and Spanish moss of a downtown park surrounded by the hustle, glitz and traffic of the sprawling city. It’s a place “that preserves the raw essence of childhood.” In Atlanta, Turning Sun Preschool offers a full spectrum, 6 months to 5 years, 8 am to 6 pm program, that embraces “the natural world and our local community, which means we go outside every day, rain or shine.” And they use public transportation to get them to parks, museums and playgrounds around the city. To paraphrase Arlo Guthrie, we got ourselves a movement here.
In the next installment, we’ll look into the Forest Days movement in northern New England public schools and a citywide initiative aimed at providing nature connection opportunities for the Latino community in Lafayette, Colorado.
The second installment of this two-part series will be published here soon.
An abridged version of this article originally appeared on yesmagazine.org. Photo credits: Forest Days Case Studies: Hartland, Ludlow, Mount Lebanon, & Cross Cutting Findings & Natural Beginnings Early Childhood Program
Additional Reading and Resources
For more examples of nature-based early childhood education, see The Sky Above and the Mud Below: Lessons from Nature Preschools and Forest Kindergartens by David Sobel to be published in spring 2020 by Redleaf Press.
Read more about David Sobel
Read more about Nature Kids Lafayette
Read more about Natural Beginnings Early Childhood Program
BACK TO THE SCHOOL OF THE FUTURE: The Real Cutting Edge of Education Probably Isn’t What You Think It IsThe Hybrid Mind: The More High-Tech Education Becomes, The More Nature Our Children Need
Back to School, Forward to Nature: Ten Ways Teachers Can Fortify Their Students With Vitamin N
C&NN’s Research Library
C&NN’s Green Schoolyards for Healthy Communities Initiative
The International Association of Nature Pedagogy
Nature-Based Leadership Institute, Antioch University New England
The International Association of Nature Pedagogy
North American Association for Environmental Education
National Environmental Education Foundation (NEEF)