What Are Our Kids Missing?
How many in your yard? Leaves, that is?
Back in another lifetime, about the end of the 1990's, I had just begun a new art teaching position in a south Georgia middle school. I was replacing a woman who had served the school for nearly three decades. The changes for me were primarily a change in grade-- my previous school had served 5th through 7th grades. This new one served 6th through 8th. Hence, I would need to develop new plans appropriate for 8th graders.
Before I had gotten very far with that assignment, I received a new one--decorating for the Fall Dance. This was my first such assignment--previously I had only been required to come up with banners for football games or to paint student faces for sporting events. Having a highly-developed sense of the importance of my own curriculum, I struggled with how to make this work with what my kids needed to be doing to meet their objectives. I decided that these would not be ordinary dance decorations. We would create an Art Installation.
One of the methods of evaluation used in public schools is public display of student work. This puts their work out where others can see, comment and criticize. The difference in creating an installation of this scale is that all students would be contributing--some would obviously contribute more than others. However, given that this was an administrative assignment, I felt we could fudge the evaluation a bit. All six classes immediately went to work. Nine foot tree trunks were assembled, painted and stashed until time for installation. Then leaf bags were filled--with individually cut, crumbled and re-opened leaves made from bulletin board paper. These leaves had to represent actual tree species--I only allowed "simple" leaves from students who were scissor-challenged. The crumpling of the leaves was necessary so that once installed, the "leaves" would have the proper "loft."
Even a tree trunk isn't just a tree trunk...
At installation time, the trunks were erected in the lobby of the gymnasium. At least half a dozen bags (the big ones) of leaves were spread across the floor. When students entered the lobby, they had to shuffle their way to the concession booth--just as if they were in a forest of old trees, which had dropped their wealth of red, gold and brown at their feet.
It took a bit to clean up, afterwards. Coincidentally, I was never asked to decorate for a dance again. Shocking, really.
What the installation was missing, of course, was the crispness of the air you experience on a brisk fall day; the smell of that same clean air, and the sounds of the birds and insects, twigs and wind--all of which make a walk in the woods in fall so invigorating. There were no logs to turn over, or rocks--no critters crawling up tree trunks or dropping nuts on their heads. For that, my kids would need to get outside--in reality.
Easy to miss this little guy without time to kick through the leaves.
Continued research into brain development and environmental exposure is revealing a picture that indicates a generation of children missing out on the advantages of being outdoors. In this instance, "environment" means any place you spend time. So for many kids, their environmental exposure is the living room and the TV or the game console. With children being "plugged in" at an earlier age than ever, they are missing the opportunity for normal brain development.
The earliest years of our lives--from ages 6 months to about 7 years old--are the time of greatest neuro-development.
Images from Harvard University show the gadjillion (my term) of neurons exploding inside our skulls as they make new connections between what we feed them through our eyes, ears, noses, tongues and fingers. At that age, we are sponges. The connections with the information we absorb at that time and what we learn as we age can be the difference in academic achievement throughout our lives.
Kids who spend time outdoors have lower stress, less ADD, less obesity, less depression, better health, better cognitive performance--and better academic performance. Even within the school setting, being able to get outside for 10 minutes within every hour has a marked impact, including better classroom behavior. Seems like we ought to work that into the schedule, don't you think?