Sunday, April 5, 2015

Nature Deficit Disorder? Not Here!

Those of you that know me, know that I am passionate about the environment. Even though I grew up in a New Jersey suburb, about 15 minutes from New York City, I always loved the outdoors and couldn't wait to get away from city life. One of the main reasons I choose to go to the University of New Hampshire was its location in beautiful rural New Hampshire! I majored in wildlife management and worked in the environmental field for 15 years before I became a teacher. While I love all aspects of science, environmental science is my true love.
I am very concerned about the disconnect many Americans have with their environment. I have noticed that students seem to know less and less about their environment and few, if any, know any names of trees, flowers or birds. Their knowledge of mammals is limited to large obvious ones such as foxes, deer, coyote and moose. I remember the day I found a dead shrew in my field and brought it in to show my students. They were blown away by it and had never seem anything like it before. Americans present disconnect with their environment was brought to light by Richard Louv in his book "Last Child in the Woods," and coined the term nature deficit disorder.
 “Passion is lifted from the earth itself by the muddy hands of the young; it travels along grass-stained sleeves to the heart. If we are going to save environmentalism and the environment, we must also save an endangered indicator species: the child in nature.”

David Sobel is a professor at Antioch New England Graduate School and has also done a lot of research about children and the environment. I love this quote,
If we want children to flourish, to become truly empowered, let us allow them to love the earth before we ask them to save it."

Finnish people already seem to know this. Children are introduced to nature early and spend a lot of time outdoors. In fact, pediatricians recommend that babies take their naps outdoors. They are all snuggled up in blankets and little sleeping bags and stay outside unless the temperature is below -25C (-13F)

No matter the temperature, wherever I went I saw children playing outside. Daycare workers take the children out every day.

Kindergarten teachers must be certified and one of the courses they take is how to teach the natural sciences to children this age. Children go outside every day and several schools take students out on frequent long trips to the forest. I visited a school just outside of Helsinki that takes the students out every week for an hour and a half long trip to the forest. The teacher has planned lessons that work on either science and or math concepts.

A squirrel puppet is used to talk to the students

Students use magnifying lens to see things closer.

After the lesson the children were given free time to explore the forest. They climbed trees, played role playing games and helped a stump decompose.

It was raining our entire trip. When we got back the children were washed off with watering cans. The clothes were put in a drying cabinet and hung up on specially built racks for boots and mittens. Even though it was raining I never heard any complaints and the kids had an absolute blast.
Washing the mud off students

Another kindergarten that is getting popular in Finland is called a hut kindergarten. A hut is built in a woods area. It can be just a small area or deeper in the forest. The students spend the entire day out in the forest. The hut is used for early morning meeting but then all the lessons and meals are outdoors. If it gets very cold or it is raining heavily the students will eat their meals in the hut. I visited one of these and talked to the teachers there. Not only do students learn to appreciate and love their environment, but they learn how to get along with one another. Most of the activities involve collaboration and play. I was so impressed with this that I want to build one of these back at my school in the states. (What do you say Paul? Can I try and get a grant?)
Outdoor Kindergarten Hut

The importance of being outside doesn't stop when students start school. The typical Finnish school has 45 minute classes followed with 15 minute outdoor recess periods. This holds true for first grade  students (7-8 year olds) through 9th grade students(15-16 year olds). Richard Louv said, "Playtime  - especially unstructured, imaginative, exploratory play- is increasingly recognized as an essential component of wholesome child development." While we have the research in the US to support this, we don't implement it. In Finland, they not only understand the importance of giving children free time outside, they implement it. 
The national curriculum puts a strong emphasis on knowing your environment and understanding the concept of sustainability. As a part of this, it is important for students to know the names of living things in their natural environment. I visited a class where first grade students learned the names of common birds and trees played a game about them.
Bird Red Rover Type of Game
Answering questions about trees.
In addition every school I went into had collections of local birds and mammals and students learned the names of everything throughout their nine years of compulsory school. Textbooks made connections between their natural environment and how humans might impact it.

I think we have a lot to learn from the Finnish educational system. Children are brought up spending a lot of time outdoors. The concept of sustainability is important and educators understand that in order to care about this one needs to have a connection with your environment.  I also think that Finnish students may do well in science because of this connection. After all, science is the study of how the world around us works. If one is tied to their environment then one might have a natural affinity to science.  So in closing I will leave you with one last quote from David Sobel to think about.

“Talking to trees and hiding in trees precedes saving trees.”

Lets try and get our kids to spend more time playing, talking and hiding in trees. Appropriately enough my Finnish word this week is "puu."  It means tree. Go outside!!


  1. I love the concept of such a relaxed environment for learning. Will we recognize the Ellen that is returning to us soon?

  2. Right on, El!
    David Sobel is also a huge advocate for place-based education. It all starts right outside your front (or back) door.

  3. You answered the question I asked from your last post. This sounds so good for everyone - students, teachers and the environment.