This summer, I read one of the most provocative books on education I've seen in a long time: Last Child in the Woods: Saving Our Children from Nature-Deficit Disorder, by Richard Louv. In the book, Louv writes, "Our society is teaching young people to avoid direct experience in nature" by reducing open space, physical education, and field trips.
He laments that electronic media are consuming an increasing portion of children's lives. He even points to zoning ordinances that prohibit tree houses. Louv adds that he believes "reducing that deficit -- healing the broken bond between our young and nature -- is in our self-interest . . . because our mental, physical, and spiritual health depends upon it."
Years ago, a San Francisco educator told me a startling fact: There are children who live in that 49-square-mile city bordering the Pacific Ocean who have never seen the sea. Teachers tell me that some high school students have never put their hands in soil and have never grown a plant. It's very disturbing how small the worlds of many children are -- and that their parents, caregivers, and teachers have not taken them to nearby places of interest.
I've experienced this myself. In May, I visited a fascinating place a bike ride away from my boyhood home on Chicago's South Side: the historic district of George Pullman's railroad sleeping-car factory and model town built for his workers in the 1880s. While I was growing up, I had no idea it was there.
Fortunately, there are many organizations, including science centers and museums; zoos and aquaria; local, state, and national parks; environmental-education groups; and 4-H clubs, whose mission is to help children understand the world around them. Although Richard Louv doesn't address it, the media and technology he blames for contributing to nature-deficit disorder can also be tools for learning about nature. Science and environmental educators have long promoted the use of student versions of the same tools scientists employ, such as temperature probes connected to laptops, global-positioning and geographic-information systems to track species, digital cameras and microscopes, and statistical software to analyze data.
One of the best and most widely implemented examples is the GLOBE (Global Learning and Observations to Support the Environment) project, a global network -- supported by, among others, the National Science Foundation and the National Aeronautics and Space Administration -- of teachers, students, and scientists studying the atmosphere, water quality, soils, and local flora and fauna.
A wealth of state and federal agencies, scientific groups, and nonprofit organizations also offer curricula and Web-based projects. Two good websites that list many of these entities are operated by the Environmental Protection Agency and the North American Association for Environmental Education. In addition, the Place-Based Education Evaluation Collaborative reports evaluation research on environmental education focused on students' specific surroundings.
Edutopia.org has profiled numerous innovative projects that connect students with nature, as described in articles such as "Swamped: Louisiana Students Become Wetlands Custodians," "NatureMapping Takes Kids -- and Technology -- Outside and into Active Learning," "Garden of Eating: Middle Schoolers Grow Their Own Lunch," "Safe Harbor: Education By Land, Mostly By Sea," "Bugscope: Magnifying the Connection Among Students, Science, and Scientists," and "Take a Hike: How to Make Being Outdoors In." Video interviews featuring Jon Young and Victor Wooten offer further insights on the subject of NDD.
Louv makes the point that some students labeled with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) may in fact have a form of nature-deficit disorder. Students who understandably can't pay attention in traditional lecture-bound classrooms come alive when they encounter animals, plants, fresh air, and hands-on activity. "Nature's Ritalin," says Louv, has a restorative effect on children's minds and bodies -- without the drugs.
Projects that take students into nature allow them to shine in ways that would have been hidden to their teachers and classmates inside the four walls of the schoolroom. As Fritjof Capra, founding director of the Center for Ecoliteracy, says in an Edutopia.org video on the Edible Schoolyard, "The kid who is brilliant in math or science or language will not necessarily be brilliant in gardening. Somebody who is not very articulate but is very good with his or her hands will be very happy in the garden and will gain in prestige in the class community."
Recognizing the value of placing students' minds and bodies in nature, Harvard University professor Howard Gardner has added "naturalist intelligence" to his earlier list of the seven multiple intelligences (linguistic, logical-mathematical, spatial, bodily-kinesthetic, musical, interpersonal, and intrapersonal). Helping students develop their nature quotient also provides a valuable pathway for developing the other intelligences.
Students with high NQs are needed now more than ever. This summer's heat wave and spiking gas prices finally brought home to Americans our role in global warming. As our nation joins the rest of the world in seeking solutions, helping students understand nature and its fragility should be at the top of educators' lists this fall.
Milton Chen is the senior fellow and executive director emeritus of The George Lucas Educational Foundation.
Click here for a list of Edutopia.org resources for connecting students with nature.