Saturday, March 28, 2015

Getting Kids Together With Nature

One theme on this last weekend of the Princeton Environmental Film Festival is how to bring nature back into children's lives on a more consistent basis. To understand what an extraordinary challenge this is, consider the story a teacher at a local daycare told me yesterday after one of the movies. The kids in the daycare were having ongoing fun playing in a mud puddle on the playground. They took delight in an earthworm and other creatures they found there. Then an inspector came and declared the puddle was a violation and had to be filled in. We think of accreditation as a comforting thing, and yet it comes at a price, paid by the kids themselves.

The film we had just seen was "School's Out: Lessons from a Forest Kindergarten", about a Swiss "wald" kindergarten that is completely outdoors, rain or shine, winter or spring. The kids adapt to the weather, play in the woods, make stuff, learn to get along. While the American school system keeps kids indoors and cuts back on recess in order to launch young kids into academics, the Swiss wait until age seven to begin formally teaching reading, writing and math. By age ten, according to the movie, the Swiss kids have caught up. The closest thing in Princeton to this approach would be the Waldorf School. Other schools represented in the audience were the Princeton Learning Cooperative, which is based next to Herrontown Woods in Princeton, and a new school that is evolving out of programming at Hopewell's community center, called Hope and Wellness.

The movie provides a vivid contrast between American indoor education and the forest kindergarten approach that is offered as an option in areas of Europe. The film's trailer provides a good sense of it. By focusing on active outdoor play and learning, kids develop a core of skills that serve them well through the rest of their lives. Gross motor skills become much better developed, kids learn how to get along and problem-solve, and see nature as a source of wonder rather than something alien to fear. The expensive playgrounds we construct begin to look sterile and impoverished compared to a woods with its endless variety of leaf litter, trees to climb, and creeks to explore.

Other related events at the library this weekend are a child-oriented presentation on raingardens that includes a reading of Jared Rosebaum's The Puddle Garden (sounds like something that would get playground inspectors nervous), and two showings of Project Wild Thing, an excellent movie about a father who decides to become nature's marketing agent.

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