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“Why don’t you go outside and play?”
In my generation, this was the stereotypical rant of the parent who wanted some peace and quiet. So, my neighborhood tribe played in the woods. Just across Merriam Street, past the abandoned car graveyard, were mysterious paths through white pine groves, streams and ponds with frogs and pickerel, and the lore we invented for our redoubts and rambles.
But it wasn’t play: it was serious exploration, time for ingenuity with sticks and stones, time and space, quiet. Time to observe and, most importantly, to be unobserved. In the woods, we suburban kids could decant our school and family activities and roles — and stretch.
Apparently, there was more going on in our outside play than even we woodland Orcs knew. Recent commentaries suggest that contemporary American society is in danger of losing some of the critical benefits of time spent in natural surroundings. Schools are also picking up on recent articles about the loss of rapport with the world outside, what author Richard Louv (“Last Child in the Woods”) called “nature deficit disorder.” It’s the alienation of kids from pine woods experiences.
In Maine, we tend to take at face value the beauty, wonder and learning to be had on a stroll by the shore or a walk in the woods, or just a lazy afternoon flopping around on the front lawn. E.O. Wilson, the Harvard biologist, says that we are all still hunter-gatherers, “and there is something in us, which we do not fully understand, that needs an occasional immersion in nature.”
Louv questions the leave-no-child-inside movement in schools and its test-centric focus on learning. “When we challenge schools to incorporate place-based learning in the natural world,” he writes in Orion Magazine, “we will help students realize that school isn’t supposed to be a polite form of incarceration, but a portal to the wider world.”
Kids need real wild things and experiences, as well as information.
We who live on the shore of the mighty Penobscot River take awe and wonder at nature for granted. Physical benefits of playing outside and breathing fresh air? Preaching to the choir! But I was struck by this data: “Studies of students in California and nationwide show that schools that use outdoor classrooms and other forms of experiential education produce significant student gains in social studies, science, language arts and math.
“And the benefits go beyond test scores. According to a range of studies, children in outdoor-education settings show increases in self-esteem, problem-solving, and motivation to learn … Research also shows a positive correlation between the length of children’s attention spans and direct experience in nature,” Louv writes. Sitting at a keyboard playing a simulation game is not direct experience — regardless of what it is simulating.
I like the role model of Jane Goodall for kids. She is, of course, the founder of “Roots and Shoots,” and the kind of inspired naturalist who bridges science and play. Her path in life is a great model, since her inquiry and powers of observation began as a young child in the family chicken coop, and led to defying the received wisdom of her professors at Cambridge University, followed by her famous field study in Gambia.
Nature was her greatest teacher, in the guise of chimpanzees whom she dared to name and socialize with. But her arc of nature studies began in that backyard chicken coop, waiting to see exactly where an egg comes from. Her mother was panicked. They searched high and low. Where was Jane? But her mother had the good sense to listen to Jane’s entire, passionate description of her discovery without overwhelming the child naturalist with her personal alarm. If you say, “Go outside and play,” you have to expect “interesting” consequences.
There’s a field of study, a field of endeavor, a conservation trust field outside of town, a field of dreams, a big woods — with kids and their pocket magnifying glasses examining rare butterflies and wildflowers. Perhaps we’re on the verge of fields where such quantum leaps of inquiry and imagination take place that mere test score increases seem paltry measures of learning.
Todd R. Nelson is a retired school principal. He lives in Penobscot.
This story was originally published in Bangor Metro’s June/July 2019 issue. To subscribe to the magazine, click here.