Science Matters: Outdoor schooling has many benefits

By David Suzuki with Faisal Moola

As our children and grandchildren head back to school it’s important to consider not just what we are teaching them but how we are teaching them. After all, the world is facing some incredible challenges, and today’s young people will be left to deal with many of them.

So, do we fill their heads with facts and figures so that we can evaluate their progress through standardized testing? Or do we give them tools so they can think for themselves?

Back in 1956, when I was in college, Rachel Carson, a biologist, writer, and ecologist who had a tremendous influence on me, wrote an essay for Woman’s Home Companionmagazine, titled “Help Your Child to Wonder”, which she later expanded into her book The Sense of Wonder. In the article, she wrote, “It is more important to pave the way for the child to want to know than to put him on a diet of facts he is not ready to assimilate.”

Ms. Carson believed, as I do, that we humans are just one part of nature, but that our ability to alter natural systems is what sets us apart. And we often alter natural systems in detrimental ways because we do not understand or appreciate nature. Ms. Carson argued that instilling in young people a sense of wonder about the earth and its marvels and mysteries will make them care more about nature and the environment. And she also thought that it would help them lead fuller lives.

“Those who dwell, as scientists or laymen, among the beauties and mysteries of the earth are never alone or weary of life,” she wrote in the article.

More fulfilled people in a healthier world – it sounds ideal. But how do we accomplish that? Ms. Carson described the value of just getting kids into nature to explore. Doing so will even make the inevitable – and useful – facts and figures that will follow more relevant. “If facts are the seeds that later produce knowledge and wisdom, then the emotions and the impressions of the senses are the fertile soil in which the seeds must grow,” she wrote.

But in this age of computer games and text messaging, of standardized testing and declining education budgets, kids are spending less time outdoors than ever before. Of course, parents have a responsibility to get their children outside, but our schools and teachers must play a role as well.

How can we expect our children to become fulfilled and healthy if we neglect to teach them or inspire them to become interested in their place in the natural world? Sure, we can include the natural sciences in curricula and teach it from books and computers alongside reading, writing, and arithmetic – but most children learn and retain information better through direct experience. Recent scientific studies have also shown that humans have an innate affinity with nature and that spending time in nature has immense psychological benefits.

In fact, moving the learning environment outdoors as much as possible will not only give young people an appreciation for nature and the planet that sustains us, but it will also help with other learning. Studies have shown that spending time in natural environments helps with recall and memory, problem-solving, and creativity. Children (and adults) who spend more time outside are also physically healthier.

The possibilities are endless. Think of how much more interesting and valuable math would be if it were made less abstract by relating it to natural phenomena, such as calculating the height of a tree. Reading the work of someone like Rachel Carson makes you realize as well how inspiring nature can be for any kind of writing, from poetry to scientific analysis. It goes without saying that subjects such as biology and geography would be more relevant if taught outdoors. That doesn’t mean all schooling should be moved outside, but we must try at least to increase the amount of time learning takes place in nature.

Instilling a sense of wonder and joy about nature at an early age ensures that “biophilia” (a love of and affinity with nature) rather than “biophobia” (a fear or discomfort with nature) becomes the predominant trait as people grow. Given the deteriorating state of our natural world, this is a compelling reason for moving the classroom outside.

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