“Connecting classrooms with technology may be starving children of a connection with the world they live in”

In the age of air conditioning and busy streets, it comes as no surprise that comfort and apprehension both contribute to the disappearing act of children playing outdoors. In fact, British play advocate, Tim Gill, may have named the problem best when he remarked in The Ecologist that “children are disappearing from the outdoors at a rate that would make them top of any conservationist’s list of endangered species if they were any other member of the animal kingdom.”

Empty sidewalks and quiet parks have not gone unnoticed; many concerned researchers have begun to quantify and discuss just how important outdoor and natural play are in the lives of children. Addressing the fear that many parents feel in his book, Last Child in the Woods: Saving Our Children from Nature Deficit Disorder, Richard Louv wrote that “an indoor (or backseat) childhood does reduce some dangers to children; but other risks are heightened, including risks to physical and psychological health, risk to children’s concept and perception of community, risk to self-confidence and the ability to discern true danger.”

“This lack of connection can engender both apathy and ignorance in children’s early perceptions of the world”

Many of the big trends in education are pushing for an increased digital experience in the classroom, however, as useful and convenient as it may be, technology’s proliferation in schools calls for reflection. Connecting classrooms with technology may be starving children of a connection with the world they live in. The unsettling side effects of technology are raised in the Nature Action Collaborative for Children’s (NACC) Call to Action:

“Optimally, technology opens worlds never before so readily available to children; however, the opening of this side of learning has contributed to shutting the door to children’s access to the more natural environment that gives a lasting attachment to children’s sense of place and their awareness of the habitat and environment nearest to them. This lack of connection can engender both apathy and ignorance in children’s early perceptions of the world around them and their roles in enjoying, learning from, and protecting it.”

Schools that are forced to funnel education into a bubble on a standardized test sheet exacerbate the problem of less outdoor play. Studies cited in the NACC’s Call to Action claim leave less time for “investigating and learning through activities that build on a child’s sense of wonder, curiosity, and the benefit of first-hand experiences.” Pressure to keep competitive test scores has convinced some schools to scratch recess altogether in favor of more cram time, and those 9 out of 10 schools that still make time for play only allocate between 24 and 30 minutes per day.

Schools attempt to make up for children’s lack on interaction with nature by bringing its study into the curriculum. Lowell Monke, professor of education at Wittenberg University, believes that schools ought to “give children experiences with real things toward which symbols are only dim pointers.” He illustrates the importance of emotional connection to what would otherwise be arbitrary bits of data when he writes that “a picture may be worth a thousand words, but to a second grader who has held a squiggly night crawler in her hand, even the printed symbol ‘worm’resonates with far deeper meaning than a thousand pictures or a dozen Discovery Channel videos.”

“We had independence and freedom to roam, concepts rarely associated with education”

The Waldorf School of Philadelphia’s mission is to “[foster] the ability to engage fully in the world.” It delivers with its commitment to nature and outdoor play. I consider myself very lucky to have had an early education full of smells and tastes, of learning and exploration; the sweetness of honeysuckle and the bitterness of violets, the constant amusement of buttercups held under chins, fingers smelling like onion grass in the spring, or sticky with sap from tapping trees for maple syrup on a field trip, the overwhelming earthy smell of jumping into a pile of leaves. Every day the field or the playground was a blank canvas and we would march out and create a different masterpiece. We had independence and freedom to roam, concepts rarely associated with education.

In kindergarten we would play pretend games and make (and on rare occasion, taste) “soup” in the roots of the trees, set up elaborate sand ice cream stands and irrigate our little cities with mud streets and stick houses.

In the early grades we would eagerly await nature walks in the Wissahickon where teachers and parents would point out the names of different plants (I learned what stinging nettle looks like the hard way). We would pick up every stone or pebble that caught our eye and test our bravery balancing on rocks and logs. We used nature and being outside to deepen and encourage what we were learning indoors. We went outside in third grade and measured the entire field to put all the acreage and mileage we were learning about in real, tangible perspective. In Fifth grade we collected specimens of the things we were learning about, deciduous and coniferous trees. I spent hours trying to replicate a pine cone in my main lesson book. When we were studying light and sound waves we went out to the field and sent half the class to the other end of the field and each group took turns whacking sticks together; we saw the sticks hit each other and waited a few seconds for the sound to reach us. In Seventh grade during our intensive drawing block we each picked a tree or a place on the field to study, to draw, to look at our surroundings with the eyes of the impressionists we had been studying.

This is what sets Waldorf Education apart when it comes to outdoor play and learning. In The Sense of Wonder, Rachel Carson writes: “If a child is to keep alive his inborn sense of wonder, he needs the companionship of at least one adult who can share it, rediscovering with him the joy, excitement and mystery of the world we live in.” At Waldorf schools the world-over, every teacher and classmate IS that companion, leaving no rock unturned or flower unsniffed throughout the child’s school journey, from kindergarten to eighth or twelfth grade.

So parents, be brave and move against the current that is pushing children indoors and out of touch with their own world. Technology is evolving at lightning speeds, so we should slow down and breathe in some fresh air in the meantime, and prioritize the invaluable time spent playing outdoors over pursuing an edge on soon to be outdated technology.

Sarah Cornelius is a graduate of The Waldorf School of Philadelphia and Phillips Academy, Andover. Sarah currently attends Reed College where she studies Anthropology in addition to pursuing her love for nature and the outdoors.