Are today’s students at risk of nature-deficit disorder?
Research shows that getting kids outdoors makes them happier, healthier and smarter; contributes to their social development and community building; reduces stress while increasing confidence; develops perceptual abilities; and has numerous other physical benefits, such as reduced risk factors for serious illness. Yet, despite the overwhelming evidence of the power of the outdoors, children are spending less and less time outside. Their connection to the wider environment is challenged daily by a variety of factors—increased technology time, lack of access to safe outdoor spaces, lack of engaged role models, and heightened parental fears and hesitation. However, these very challenges reinforce the fundamental value of going outside in the first place and creating greater connections with the outside.
These obstacles are not insurmountable, and growing grassroots and educational movements are focused on getting kids outside and building connections to both nature and each other. Richard Louv, author of the New York Times best-selling book Last Child in the Woods: Saving Our Children From Nature-Deficit Disorder (2005), asserts that “the future will belong to the nature-smart—those individuals, families, businesses and political leaders who develop a deeper understanding of the transformative power of the natural world and who balance the virtual with the real. The more high-tech we become, the more nature we need.”
Connecting students with the outdoors has long been one of the goals of the Global, Environmental & Outdoor Education Council (GEOEC). Being outdoors helps youth connect to the larger web of life of which they are both an essential part and an insignificant speck. Being in nature is at once humbling and inspiring. Albert Einstein said: “Look deep into nature, and then you will understand everything better.” GEOEC believes that being in the outdoors helps students build the skills necessary for them to become positive leaders for a better future for all the world’s citizens.
GEOEC has existed for 26 years and during that time has consistently played an active role in developing and implementing unique professional development opportunities for educators across Alberta. The GEOEC is a unique council because its members are not only classroom teachers but also educators who work in the not-for-profit sector and other organizations dedicated to the fields of global, environmental and outdoor education. The focus of the council is broad—it encompasses the fields of global, environmental and outdoor education, but more important, it connects these three strands because you can’t learn in the outdoors without loving the environment, and you can’t love the environment without deeply valuing the world around you. This sentiment is the essence of the work of the council itself.
Many resources are available for teachers and parents who wish to connect children and youth to the outdoors. Countless community organizations, websites, blogs and books exist where you can find inspiration and support for your outdoors initiatives. Many resources are available on the GEOEC website (www.geoec.org), but the greatest resources are those around us, our fellow global citizens who will also benefit from a healthy dose of vitamin N(ature).
As educators, we have the unique opportunity to merge the intrinsic value of nature with our formal educational goals both inside and outside the classroom. In our communities, we have the ability to design learning opportunities that develop bodies, minds and spirits while blurring the lines between inside and outside. We, as educators, can lead the charge to go outside!
Jessica Scalzo is president of the Global, Environmental & Outdoor Education Council of the Alberta Teachers’ Association, and chair of Parkland Teachers Local’s Diversity, Equity and Human Rights Committee.