By Florencia López-Boo.
I don’t think there’s any better way to ensure that children are bored and disconnected from learning than by shutting them up in a classroom and bombarding them with rules and countless tests. My field observations at child care centers and preschools have led me to think that many times children are treated like lambs in a pen instead of being encouraged to freely observe, explore, think and develop.
Sometimes a youngster is referred to as a “wild child” when his or her behavior is less than exemplary. But don’t you think that wild is exactly what children should be? Wild means free from captivity, untamed. It’s clear that children who live under lock and key, surrounded by concrete, have no way of escaping their captivity.
The journalist George Monbiot published an article that speaks just to that. It highlights a study by researchers at King’s College London, who reviewed the literature and found that children who spend time learning in outdoor environments do better on reading, math, science and social studies tests. Working and/or studying in a community garden or in the countryside also improves long-term memory. Dozens of papers report significant improvements in attention when children under age 12 are exposed to wildlife.
Following this philosophy, the UK-based Wilderness Foundation takes adolescents with behavioral problems into the mountains to work with them on various skills. An evaluation of the program found that the teens’ self-control and behavior improved both in the short and long term. More importantly, the powers of observation and intuition that they demonstrated while being outdoors surprised even their schoolteachers.
This leads me to believe that perhaps “problem children” are actually born of a problem with the education system, a system that rewards a very limited set of skills that can only be observed in a classroom.
Why not promote an educational policy that allows all children to spend at least a week in the countryside each semester? Why not encourage children to develop skills such as rock climbing, hiking, spelunking, or ropework? The White House is trying to influence educational policies in this direction. They launched three days ago the initiative “Let’ s get every kid in a park” by which every fourth-grader in the US will receive a pass that’s good for free admission to all of America’s federal lands and waters for a full year.
It just may be that by immersing themselves, both metaphorically and literally, in the natural world, kids discover more about themselves and the world around them than during three months in a classroom. What kind of government would deprive children of this experience? Tell us about the education system in your community in the comments section below or on Twitter.
Florencia López-Boo is a senior social protection economist with the Social Protection and Health Division of the Inter-American Development Bank (IDB).