Space for Nature, Space for Growth

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By Chrissie Wilson

During the last weekend in April I was honored to attend the Young Children in Nature Conference at the Cincinnati Nature Center. While there are many things I could highlight from the conference, I was most motivated by author and researcher Louise Chawla’s session. One of her key topics was the concept that outdoor education and access to safe outdoor space should be considered a form of social justice. The topic struck close to home as a large percent of our student population comes from disadvantaged backgrounds and is the topic of discussion throughout the city regarding various social justice initiatives.

The American Public Health Association has reported that low income populations benefit the most from access to outdoor safe space when given imaginative play time during or after the school day. They report a reduction in ADD/ADHD, impulsivity, emotional problems, anxiety, and depression. An increase in test scores, math, English, science, IQ, spacial awareness, and empathic behaviors has been reported. The key to seeing these results is to allow children to experience imaginative, gender-mixed play in a natural setting where they can engage their senses and take risks that push their conformability while still feeling secure. Children of all incomes, beliefs, and backgrounds should have access to such a space so that they might learn what contributions to our earth they might make. By pulling weeds, digging in the dirt, and merely being in a natural environment, they learn something of what the world needs, and what they might provide through their own independent engagement. As Ms. Chawla put it, “agency is its own motivation.”

When discussing social justice our fallback answer is normally housing, food, and greater access to better schools and teachers. The usual hierarchy of needs tends to leave nature access in the backseat, if it is mentioned at all. However, access to green space has been proven to help children grown empathy and concern for other life forms, and to cultivate and develop their own personal agency. When children are allowed the room to play without borders placed on their creativity, they access multiple learning disciplines at once while fostering valuable social skills. When we limit a child’s green space we are cutting off their access to imagination, personal agency, responsibility, social modeling, and investigative learning.

Children can only walk one path when they are only shown one type of life. When children are not exposed to diversity in all its forms their ability to build empathic connections with others, human or otherwise, is deeply damaged. The young need the license to explore, with an acceptable amount of risk, the concept that their actions have both positive and negative consequences. The social behaviors that are accepted as valuable—independence, creativity, teamwork, empathy, self-problem solving, and social flexibility—are grafted into nature-based play and education. These skills should not be reserved for children who, by the luck of the draw, were born to families with a higher resource pool. All children, no matter their background or demographics, deserve access to nature and the unique educational gifts it has to offer