In Florissant, Missouri, right off a busy highway, sits the 97-acre Little Creek Nature Area, a nature facility that serves the students of the Ferguson-Florissant School District. This slice of forest is owned by the district and includes classrooms, trails, prairie, chickens, gardens and a pond. Younger students take trips to Little Creek every year and high school students can take a field biology class there.
“[For] students who can't keep their head in a book, this is very special for them,” said Eric Hadley, science curriculum and instruction coordinator for the Little Creek Nature Area. “There just aren't many facilities like it,” he said, adding that approximately 10,000 students use Little Creek every year.
Time outdoors is valuable for a child's development. With the ever-expanding increase in time spent watching screens, children suffer from “nature deficit disorder,” a term coined by author Richard Louv in his book “Last Child in the Woods: Saving Our Children from Nature-Deficit Disorder.” Louv connects the rise of obesity, along with increased psychological and academic problems, to decline in outdoor time.
Exposure to nature contributes to “emotional restoration, decreases stress, can decrease symptoms of anxiety, can elevate mood,” according to Cathy Jordan, research director for the Children & Nature Network, a nonprofit organization Louv founded to reconnect children with nature.
“Kids who get to experience this kind of play and learning are happier, healthier and smarter,” she said.
Research into the cognitive benefits of green space is still in its infancy, but one of the stronger studies on the subject found a connection between increased green space and increased attentiveness and working memory over a 12-month period among some 2,500 elementary school children.
In terms of physical health, kids will obviously get more activity when they play outside, but there are some other surprising benefits. Outdoor time prevents nearsightedness that stems from deprivation of bright sunlight.
“The theory goes that when kids are exposed to bright sunlight, it regulates how dopamine functions in the eye; that's necessary for normal development of the shape of the eyeball,” said Jordan.
Intangible social benefits can also translate to better classroom behavior. When kids are doing outdoor activities, they tend to do more group work in a collaborative sort of way, said Jordan.
“They're learning those cooperation skills, and conflict management skills, communications skills that can transfer to other aspects of their life.”
IN THE CLASSROOM
Ferguson-Florissant first-grade teachers Donna Guyre and Elizabeth Stone have seen the difference just one trip to a nature center makes with their students.
“They don't have prior knowledge of farm animals or zoo animals. Bringing them (to Little Creek), they see things they've never seen before and they can relate it to things we talk about in the classroom.”
“They are more respectful,” to people and the living things around them, said Stone.
Both Guyre and Stone keep up the outdoor time for the students throughout the year. Both work at elementary schools that have set up outdoor classrooms. For instance, Stone will have her students practice making graphs by collecting pine cones and using sidewalk chalk to chart the results.
Such activities show teachers don't need their private nature center to get kids outside.
CONNECTING WITH PARKS
Educator Jean Turney advises teachers to make use of the natural surroundings for interdisciplinary projects. Turney is education coordinator for Forest Park Forever, a nonprofit that partners with the city of St. Louis to maintain and sustain Forest Park, its largest city park. During her time teaching fourth-grade public school students, Turney secured a grant to bus her students to Forest Park once a week.
“I really experienced firsthand the power of kids having repeated outdoor activity,” she said. “This park really became their classroom.”
Turney's students did an interdisciplinary project that had a focus on trees. Their science lesson involved calculating the age of the trees. That led into their history lesson, where they matched the tree age with a timeline of St. Louis history, and what historical events were occurring in the tree's lifetime. That led to a literature lesson where the kids had to write a story from the perspective of a tree, and then perform their story at the history museum.
“They had opportunities in terms of creativity that I didn't always see structured in our (indoor) classroom,” she said.
But teachers have to take the initiative to get started. Outdoor programs vary based on “what the teacher puts into it,” said Guyre.
She keeps hermit crabs and plants in her classroom and puts students in charge of their care. Perhaps one of the main hurdles for teachers is to get used to letting go of a little control.
Stone talked about letting kids have a “controlled uncontrolled experience.”
“It's being able to let go of your comfort zone so they can explore and have that experience.”
It can get messy but that's part of the learning process, that things don't always work the way you want.
“That's really what gives kids a well-rounded situation,” said Stone “You learn from all of that.”
For another example of learning outdoors, check out how this New York City school is getting kids into nature.