With every passing year, I wonder more often: What is school actually for? And by that, I really mean two questions: What should school be meant for? And… what is it meant for, as currently constituted?
These sorts of questions, for me, come up often, as I work as an educational therapist—an academic support coach—working with students with learning and developmental challenges including dyslexia, processing, autism, and ADHD.
In my 15+ years of experience working in this field, I’ve found ADHD to be the most pervasive. It affects so many kids (and adults). And so often, I look at struggling students and look at the behavior and workload expected of them, and I think: If school didn’t require them to sit inside for 7 hours a day, to pump out writing production consistently, to contain their ideas and mold them into the “right” answers—in other words, work a 9-5 office job—might their school experience be more successful for them?
Here’s a more tangible thought—what if they had more opportunity to be “doers” rather than “learners”? An article on the CHADD (Children and Adults with ADHD) website says, “A growing body of research is indicating that children and adults who spend time in nature increase their ability to pay attention and have lower levels of stress and anxiety. Researchers are specifically interested in how green time—spending time in a natural setting—can benefit children with an ADHD diagnosis” (chadd.org/adhd-weekly/spend-time-outside-to-improve-adhd-symptoms/).
A couple of thoughts about classrooms:
-They’re full of distractions—technology, screens, other kids, pictures and words on the walls, on the white boards etc.
-They’re contained, limited spaces. Doors are usually closed. A lot of people filling a room. Only so many places you can go.
-There is the constant pressure to perform.
-Rarely is there anything green in sight.
Now, many teachers make their classrooms into beautiful, inviting spaces, and that’s not an easy feat. But that doesn’t negate any of the factors listed above.
Why are we so intent on keeping kids indoors for the better part of the day? Winter is harsh in some places, I get it. But I taught in Southern California for nearly two decades, and the amount of time kids spent outdoors at school was still minimal. Even L.A. schools who claim to be environmentally “progressive” don’t live up to the promise of connecting kids to the outdoors. I once checked out a potential alternative school for one of my students who boasted that they valued the outdoors, but I read on their site that they simply took the kids out once a week for a nature walk.
I guess what I’m saying is that our education system is missing something that, to me, seems very important. And in my mind, this isn’t just about putting kids with ADHD in the best position to succeed. This is about helping our young citizens connect with our natural environment. Sure, we teach them environmental science. We teach them biology. We may even teach them about how our actions affect the environment…
But these are not replacements for teaching our kids to get their hands in the dirt. I mean that figuratively and literally.
So how can we possibly integrate outdoor, environmental education into the school day? Here are a few examples…
A friend of mine once worked for an organization who went into Los Angeles elementary schools and helped students set up gardens around their school. They learned how to plant and foster growth. They saw the fruits of their labors grow out of the Earth.
I once was a classroom aide, and the teacher took the class on a walk to the local park where we had snack. But really, this was a math lesson—along the way, they were challenged to take measurements and find specific geometric shapes. Even the kids who typically struggled were fully engaged. After the wonderful morning outside, I wondered why we didn’t do this several times a week, finding ways to work in other math skills.
I once worked for an after-school program that also had an “eco-station” where they took care of rescued animals, a variety ranging from lizards to birds to more exotic felines and canines. Schools would come in for a couple of hours to learn about the critters and get to handle them in some cases. Great stuff. Why is this sort of educational opportunity treated more like a one-off special occasion?
I know, funding is an issue. But money aside, it feels to me like we should be teaching kids to respect our planet and inhabitants by exposing them to it regularly—by integrating this sort of active education into the curriculum.
Here’s a thought—why don’t we teach kids how to compost? For years I’ve watched with horror as kids dump half of their lunch tray in the trash. The amount of fruit and peels and scraps of organic foods that are tossed into plastic trash bags on school sites is astounding. What if we turned sections of our school yards into composted dirt that could be used to grow food?
Do I think if these sorts of outdoor, environmentally based programs were integrated into curriculums, we’d see better behavior and academic success for students with ADHD?
Do I think it would help all students’ behavior and motivation?
Do I believe that teaching kids how to grow food, how to help animals in need, how to assess our own connections to, and impacts on, our own environment is crucial to the survival of our planet?
ATTENTION AND OUTDOOR LEARNING:
A jumping off point
EZRA WERB, M.Ed.
Ezra Werb, M.Ed., a member of the Association of Educational Therapists, is the author of Teach for Attention: A Tool Belt of Strategies for Engaging Students with Attention Challenges (Free Spirit Publishing) and has published articles about ADHD and executive function support for ADDitude Magazine, edutopia.org, and middleweb.com and has delivered webinars for edWeb.net and CHADD.org. His collaboration with Laura Bahr, The Candy Culprit video series, is part of the New England Primate Conservancy’s educational resources (neprimateconservancy.org).