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From The Editor

From the Editor

The Classroom Outside

Growing up, I was lucky to have a large expanse of outdoor space in which to play. My parents owned a two-and-a-half acre lot on the north edge of Phoenix, AZ. Many of our neighbors had horses, and our home was a short dirt bike ride from the Mountain Preserve, one of the largest urban parks in the US. Much of my free time was spent scouting desert trails, exploring arroyos, and hunting for lizards and fool’s gold.

I never thought of the hours among the creosote and saguaros as “education” – it was just plain fun. But surely I learned some lessons during that time: the pattern of the seasons in the Sonoran Desert, the points of a compass, what a horny toad looks like. Simply being outside and having the freedom to satisfy a child’s curiosity provided a crash course in ecology.

Unfortunately, a decreasing number of US children today are afforded similar opportunities for unstructured outdoor time. Suburban sprawl has paved over many meadows and creeks, and parental fears of crime and abduction keep many kids inside. Author Richard Louv has dubbed children’s lack of engagement with the world “Nature Deficit Disorder.” According to one statistic Louv cites, the radius that children travel away from their homes to play shrank by nearly 90 percent between 1970 and 1994. As one boy told Louv in the course of his research, he prefers playing inside … because that’s where the electrical outlets are.

The implications of this trend are frightening. Watching TV, playing video games, or cruising the Internet may open windows of understanding into the workings of a complex post-industrial world. But at the same time those activities close other windows, and, I believe, limit children’s understanding of the human experience. Too much time inside reduces young people’s conception of what it means to be a physical creature on this fecund planet.

Several months after interviewing Oberlin College Professor David Orr for our Conversation (p. 50), I remain deeply unsettled by something he said to me: “The possibility of a divorce between humankind and nature is not a small issue. … I think that the danger of our becoming an indoor, primarily electronic species isn’t small.”

Thankfully, many organizations are working hard to prevent that from happening. Kids for the Bay is one of them – an Earth Island Institute-sponsored project that teaches young children the importance of protecting the San Francisco Bay (p. 19). Another encouraging sign is the growing number of “Expeditionary Learning” schools – elementary and high schools that use outdoor experiences to teach core subjects. The teaching methods, though unconventional, are proving successful; kids seem to respond to the kind of education in which real-life experiences reinforce what’s learned in books. As Adam Spangler reports in “Educational Trailblazers” (p. 46), students at many Expeditionary Learning schools are performing above average on standardized tests.

It’s sad that in our urban, suburban, and exurban communities, such programs are exciting exceptions instead of everyday examples, because the stakes for our environmental future couldn’t be higher. Unless children have the chance to fall in love with the natural world, they will have little desire to protect it.

Jason Mark

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