Saturday, May 14, 2016

In Our Nature

       There is a tremendous focus on technology in today's society - we do seem to love it so. I feel confident that at every interview for a teaching position I've ever had, I was asked about my comfort level with the various technologies that school was currently employing.

     If I'm being honest, my comfort level is.... low.

     I mean, I do love my smartphone. Nearly every picture on this blog was taken with it. If they weren't, I was using a DSLR - gone are the days of developing my prints in a darkroom (and, as quaint as that hobby seemed, it was still, admittedly, utilization of technology, albeit totally outmoded). And social media has been a tremendous support system for me and an excellent resource for communicating with families.

     But it's a tool for me. Not for my playschool kids.

     I could detail the reasons why I'm not wild about technology for the kids, but that's been done a lot lately. And I'm not really opposed to it. It's fine in moderation, for entertainment and communication.

     It just really pales as a learning tool.

    I know, I know - college and career readiness! We use technology in our jobs! The kids need to know how to use....

   Yes. I know. The thing is, they already know how to use most of today's technology better than we do. My three year old can navigate a smart phone or tablet with ease, and that's as a child who has extremely limited access to such things compared to her peers.

   Have you ever played Minecraft with a seven year old? I have. It's embarrassing and humbling.

    Today's children use today's technology with ease. No instruction necessary. They learn these strategies the same way they gain any other skills - through hands-on exploration powered by their own interest. 

    Many of the techniques that teach "media skills" in schools are a joke compared to this self-led tinkering, anyway. What does this instruction look like? Each child touching the smart board once in turn? Watching a video? Using the computer lab's clunky monitors, navigating an online assessment using a mouse? These activities aren't really getting it done, and, again, most of today's students understand today's technology at a much higher level than the schools are offering up anyway.  

    I understand the schools' motivations here. I do. We all want the best for our children and we want them to be prepared, to succeed. It's in our nature. And someone somewhere decided that to be prepared, to succeed, kids needed more exposure to technology. The problem is that their logic was faulty but we all believed them.

      I was caught up in this once upon a time as a classroom teacher, too. I'll readily admit that. The intentions are good; our society just hasn't panned out to look at the wider picture.

    Kids already understand today's technology. The learned it in the way that they learn best - through exploration. They don't need passive exposure to watered down technology in school to understand it. Frankly, this is time wasted. 

    Lastly, and perhaps most importantly, the technology that exists in homes today (and certainly the technology that exists in schools today) will be completely obsolete by the time today's elementary students reach middle school, let alone their college and career experiences. These are simply not skills they will need in their futures. This is a fact.

    So what will today's students need to be college and career ready?

    They need the ability to speak their minds clearly and effectively.

    They need to ability to work effectively in a group.

     The need problem solving and critical thinking skills.

     They need enough exposure to the wide world around them to be able to effectively evaluate information sources for accuracy, for whether or not those sources seem reasonable and of high quality.

     They need to have a sense of who they are, of what they contribute to the group, of where their talents and passions lie. 

     This is what they need to be college and career ready. These are skills we can help them to hone as young people.

    University professors and human resource departments nationwide are bemoaning the fact that young adults increasingly do not have these skills. They weren't prepared for the expectations - they aren't college and career ready.

    What's missing? 

    Kids today are missing out on play. They're missing out on time spent in nature. They're missing out on the kinds of self-directed exploration and real world experiences that help them to develop the skills necessary to be college and career ready.

    The average American child is said to spend 4 to 7 minutes a day in unstructured play outdoors, and over 7 hours a day in front of a screen. (Danielle Cohen)

    They don't need more time in front of screens.

     They need more time in nature.

      Richard Louv refers to nature as Vitamin N, vital in healthy child development (and necessary for adults, as well). He tells us that humans are hard-wired to love and need exposure to the natural world. 

     It's in our nature. And we are denying this part of our nature, especially to the youngest members of our society, to the detriment of their attention spans, their mental health, their ability to interact with their world, their ability to think critically and creatively. We are denying this integral part of their nature in favor of screens and worksheets and quietly sitting.

    We are denying their best chance at being ready for college, for careers, for adult life. For happiness.

     Unstructured outdoor play is the solution, not more screens.

     Why is time spent outdoors so vital for child development?

     Time spent in nature is a full sensory experience. It provides stimulation and integration of the senses in a way that isn't overwhelming - indeed, it is soothing and promotes focus and calm. Quite the opposite of time spent in front of a screen.

     Time spent in natures makes kids think. Natural environments provoke a sense of wonder and a pleasurable opportunity to hone creative and critical thinking.

     Time spent in nature allows for real-life opportunities for problem solving and valuable opportunities to hone a sense of responsibility.

     Time spent in nature allows us to broaden our understanding of the world. We learn empathy. We learn that we are part of something larger than ourselves.

     I spent a lot of time reading about Forest Schools and trying to find ways to travel to forested areas for the kids to better experience nature. We live in a fairly urban area, so you can drive pretty far before finding a large, "real" natural space.

    I imagine many of you reading right now are concerned about your lack of access to "real nature."

    I was, too. 

     I recently participated in a discussion session with Liana Chavarin of Berkeley Forest School and hoped to apply some of her strategies during field trips. 

     As we talked, and she shared her experiences cultivating a love of nature as a child in urban Los Angeles, I began to see my own backyard in a new light. Not only was it enough, it was better than some far-flung location because it was relevant and meaningful to my crew of preschoolers. Where I saw the ordinary and mundane, they were seeing something magical.

    Our milkweed draws monarch caterpillars twice a year. 

     Louisiana spring brings puddles, temporary creeks, and occasionally all-out swamps.

     The neighborhood around us holds many treasures, from special rocks, to tiny flowers in the grass, to tickly fern fronds, to the ever-watched fig tree (how long till there are figs?!?).

     Even the vacant lot at the end of the street holds treasures - sunflowers great and small.

     These experiences help them to wonder, to explore, to tinker, in nature. They are developing a feeling of being connected to the earth, to something beautiful and wondrous and larger than themselves. 

    In this environment, they are learning, working together, joyously exploring their world.

    They are becoming college and career ready.

     More importantly, they are setting the stage for full and rich lives.

      In their neighborhood. In their nature.

Interested in more about finding "your" nature, even in an urban or suburban environment?

My sources for this post:

my children, my "sprouts," my backyard

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