Call to action: Connecting kids with nature

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A Madison-Plains High School student captured this image of a Monarch butterfly in the Eagle Land Lab during a Nature Club outing. Molly Niese, a science teacher at  Madison-Plains, created the Nature Club as a learning tool and way to connect students with the environment.

(Posted Sept. 10, 2020)

Each day, our youth will likely spend a meager four to seven minutes playing outside. This number becomes concerning when a recent survey suggests children are spending more than seven hours a day in front of a screen. This increase in screen time is associated with an overall decrease in psychological well-being and physical fitness. Though this information is personally gut wrenching, it isn’t the motivation behind my cry for help. I am driven by firsthand experiences shared with my students in a rural high school outside of Columbus, Ohio.

I am fortunate to work in a school district that has plenty of greenspace and ample opportunities to venture outdoors. However, my students are becoming more and more reluctant to join me as I attempt to hold class outside. The outdoors is becoming a foreign world. What I rely on as a source of imagination, creation and calm is a source of discomfort for my students. I can’t help but question the future of our planet and the generation we will be leaving it to. Nevertheless, I choose to revel in the hope that we aren’t too far gone.

In the fall of 2019, I created an after-school nature club to facilitate the bond between nature and adolescents. The students met one hour a week for 18 weeks. During this time, students made an effort to explore school grounds, restore native vegetation, identify local species and simply disconnect. Astonishingly, this disconnection allowed my students to become attuned to the natural world and experience the interconnectedness amongst all living things. After just one semester, students expressed their increased empathy for the natural world and their newfound desire to protect it. I observed that students’ mental health and physical fitness had improved and they expressed feeling calmer and happier.

Studies suggest that children who are more connected to the natural world are more likely to develop pro-environmental behaviors as an adult. So, how do we, as parents, guardians or educators, establish nature connectedness? First and foremost, set ground rules and require a daily amount of unstructured outdoor activity free of technology. A study published in the peer reviewed journal Nature recommends 120 weekly minutes to promote good health and well-being. Currently, no designated time has been determined in order to develop a connection with nature, however most studies state that simply spending more time outdoors does the trick. This time could be spent in a backyard, a local park or any greenspace.

Additionally, this connection can be strengthened if the child is accompanied by an adult or family member they admire or trust. As that person of influence, take time to venture outside with your child and show interest in the natural world and its astounding intricacy. Children are incredibly curious and are more likely to feel a connection to the natural world if they are familiar with it. As a parent or guardian, attempt to identify species and put names to faces with your child. Don’t panic if you aren’t an expert, there are apps for that. Apps such as iNaturalist are a great way to photograph your findings and have them identified by other members. You may also consider anthropomorphism and creating simple stories about local species. Giving organisms appropriate human-like qualities is likely to generate a connection.

As an educator, I find myself in the position to elicit change. A formal nature club is not necessary, however making the conscious decision to get outside and observe is something we are all capable of. The evidence regarding connectedness to nature and pro-environmental behavior is strong. Yet, as these studies rise to the surface, adolescents are continuing to stay inside. I urge adults with young people they care about to take them on weekly outdoor adventures, whether it be in their own backyard, to the local park or a walk around the block.

Molly Niese is a science teacher at Madison-Plains High School.

Resources:
• Adams, J. U. (2019, December). The Nature Antidote. Audubon, 36–41.
• Cohen, D. (n.d.). Why Kids Need to Spend Time in Nature. Retrieved from https://childmind.org/article/why-kids-need-to-spend-time-in-nature/
• Hinds, J., & Sparks, P. (2008). Engaging with the natural environment: The role of affective connection and identity. Journal of Environmental Psychology, 28(2), 109-120.
• Louv, Richard, 2008. Last Child in the Woods: Saving Our Children from Nature Deficit Disorder. In: And the Nature Principle: Reconnecting with Life in a Virtual Age. Algonquin Books.
• Tanner, T. (1980). “Significant Life Experiences: A New Research Area in Environmental Education.” Journal of Environmental Education 11(4): 20-24.
• White, M.P., Alcock, I., Grellier, J. et al. Spending at least 120 minutes a week in nature is associated with good health and wellbeing. Sci Rep 9, 7730 (2019).

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