The best classroom is right in our backyard
“Our society is teaching young people to avoid direct experience in nature,” says Richard Louv in his new book, Last Child in the Woods.
Instead of playing in the woods all day, like those of us who grew up in the 1960s did, today’s children are more likely to spend free time in front of a computer screen doing homework or driving to a structured activity or sport.
Louv states, “Today, your average eight year olds are better able to identify cartoon characters than native species.”
Cookie-cutter suburban neighborhoods leave children too far from the woods for them to explore, and fears of lawsuits have made many of the things kids used to do, like building tree houses, off limits on public property. In addition, a justified or unjustified fear of boogie men in the woods has left parents too scared to let their children roam in the forest by themselves.
The result for our society is more stress, a rampant epidemic of obesity and millions of children who have little or no understanding of their natural surroundings. Louv quotes one fourth grader as saying, “I like to play indoors better, ’cause that’s where all the electrical outlets are.”
This is bad news, and in many parts of the country it is getting worse. The good news is that here in the Sierra Nevada we have the opportunity to break the trend. We have nature at its most glorious, right out our doors just waiting to provide us with a first-rate education.
Parents, if your kids are not spending time playing in the woods, then you are not doing your job. Get them out there where they belong. Our schools as well, while somewhat beholden to the same problems as the rest of our society, need to make sure that playing in the woods is a major part of the curriculum.
One suggestion, that I am sure most kids and parents could sign onto, would be a little less time doing homework and a little more time walking through the trees.
I am not so sure about the homework, but in a number of other ways our schools are taking steps to bring nature to our kids. For example, Lindee Eckert from North Tahoe Middle School says, “Last year my sixth grade class did a Forest Health unit at Burton Creek State Park to learn about trees, forest health and defensible space. The concept of defensible space, and the connection between nature and our homes, has been an important part of the curriculum for the past four years with help from the North Tahoe Fire protection district. The program culminated in a science day with all of the sixth and seventh graders attending.”
Another example of our schools taking advantage of what is in our back yard is the snow survival training at the Donner Trail school on Donner Summit. All of the elementary schools in the district take advantage of this program, which teaches not only survival, but hopefully love for the Sierra outdoors in the winter.
The SWEP (Sierra Watershed Education Program) is, according to the non-profit organization’s Web site (4swep.org), “an innovative K-12 environmental education framework that uses the school’s local watershed as a living laboratory. Students participate in outdoor field studies and service-learning projects that apply concepts learned in the classroom to the stewardship of the surrounding watersheds.”
This program has been an active part of Tahoe-Truckee area schools for a number of years. Lake Tahoe area middle school students also learn about nature outside of the Tahoe area. The two-day sixth grade field trip to Mono Lake, or the GATE programs (Gifted and Talented Education) annual trips to Yosemite and the Marin Headlands help introduce children to the importance of nature.
While these are all great programs, as parents and community members it is our job to tell our teachers and administrators to take it a step further to get kids spending more time in and learning about nature.
I often hear local parents complain that our children are deprived of art and culture that they would receive if they lived in the big city. That might be true, but our kids have what to me is a big advantage over the city kids. While we may not have their museums, we have thousands of acres of beautiful natural surroundings right at our footsteps.
When Truckee and North Tahoe high school graduates go to college they should be able to tell their college buddies stories about beautiful nights that they spent in the wilderness gazing at the stars; take those friends for a hike in the mountains and know the names of most of the plants and animals that they see; understand how a glacier carved out Emerald Bay; and most importantly, be comfortable spending a day alone doing nothing but quietly enjoying a mountain lake.
To me, these are skills that are well worth learning.
Tim Hauserman’s book on backpacking with children is set to be published by University of Nevada Press in the summer of 2007.
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