Columbia City Paper: Statehouse Report 4/11

April 11, 2007

You can see the brain buzz a kid gets when she’s playing outside with seashells, watching birds or running around on the beach.

It’s a sharp contrast to how most youths spend their time - - stuck in front of a television, video or computer screen. A recent study shows American children spend an average of 44 hours a week - - more than six hours a day - - in front of a screen.

“Their senses – including, most sadly, their sense of wonder – are bombarded, overwhelmed and ultimately diminished,” according to the National Wildlife Federation.

It’s not difficult to figure out the development of this “nature deficit disorder,” a term penned by author Richard Louv. Through the nation’s automated babysitter (television), children get a lot of information passively. It’s one-way - - TV to child.

Interactivity picks up some with video games (but then again, they are games) and using computers, but it’s not the same as learning based on direct experiences.

Take the case of a bird like the Great Egret. Today’s children might be able to learn everything in the world about it through a TV documentary or the Internet. But actually to see the big white bird slowly stalk small fish in a tidal stream as the sun beats down is completely different. Playing outside for kids is an educational, sensory experience that caresses and stimulates their brains in multiple, interactive ways.

Educators say trading screen time for green time outdoors is, to make a bad pun, a natural. Children who play outside regularly in an unstructured way are fitter and more creative and more imaginative.

They also have less stress and better self-respect, according to NWF’s Green Hour program (http://www.greenhour.org), a national initiative for getting children to spend one hour a day outside.

While the NWF program is voluntary, a state-backed, environmental education pilot program shows promise in providing a new structure to improve student performance.

The S.C. “Using the Environment as an Integrating Context for Learning” School Network involves 2,500 students and 120 teachers in 11 middle schools across the state.

“They’re using the natural and social systems as the context of learning in their local communities,” said environmental educator Ed Falco, coordinator of the program for the State Department of Education.

He’s quick to point out that the system isn’t just a way to teach science. Instead, it integrates science, math, social studies and language arts into an environmental education strategy.

“We’re using environmental education in a new way,” he said. “It’s not just about science. These kids are out and about investigating. They’re exploring and trying to solve local issues. They’re taking their education further by taking it outside.”

So far, the results for the sixth graders involved are encouraging, he said.

At one middle school in Colleton County, for example, students had an average gain in standardized test scores that were higher than the statewide average gain in schools not involved in the program, Falco said.

This nature-based strategy seems to work. Seven of the nine schools involved last year in the program showed increases in standardized test scores in three of four content areas. In other words, kids generally improved not just in one area like science, but also in language arts, social studies or math.

Even more interestingly, the program seems to stimulate children. Almost three in four reported that they had positive changes and behavior toward their school, Falco said. Why? Because they were investigating and exploring outside of the classroom.

Louv, the author who also chairs the Children and Nature Network (www.cnaturenet.org), said using nature in education is a growing national movement. A handful of states are considering legislation to integrate the strategy into school curriculums.

“This issue has the peculiar ability to bring people together who normally don’t want to be in the same room,” he said in an interview.

Falco’s program currently costs about $300,000 a year and is backed mostly with private grants. If it were to be expanded across the state, a good guess is it would cost about $6 million a year to run it.

And think of the benefits: Not only might more children be inspired to learn, but they might become tomorrow’s stewards of South Carolina’s outdoors.

Andy Brack, publisher of S.C. Statehouse Report, can be reached at: brack@statehousereport.com.