“Kids these days!” is an exclamation we’ve all heard, often accompanied by a sigh and a follow-up story, “When I was young…”
However indignant adults may be about today’s children, some of this perspective is surely rooted in memory lapses and exaggeration.
That said, when it comes to the time kids these days spend in front of a screen, instead of, say, playing outside, the difference is quite real, very big, and well documented. Ample research shows that children are spending more time with media than doing any other activity—combining time spent with TV, computers, and mobile devices, kids spend a baffling 7.5 hours per day in front of screens.(1) That’s a lot of facetime with inanimate objects!
Between 7.5 hours of screen time and the kids’ needs to sleep, eat, and be in class, it’s no surprise that there is little time for unstructured, go-outside-and-play time, a staple of childhood just a few decades ago. With so much time being spent indoors, in front of a screen, it’s worth asking: What’s being lost?
A lot, it turns out.
In its comprehensive review of published studies on the value of learning outdoors, the Children’s Nature Network helps us understand what children are sacrificing to feed the screen habit. Evidence shows that outdoor play sets kids up for better physical and mental health, higher academic achievement, better in-class behavior, more positive attitudes, reduced stress and AD(H)D symptoms and better social skills. (2) The upshot of this review? Being outside is just good for kids, period.
It’s also good for society for kids to get outside. If our future adults are disconnected from and uncomfortable in nature, how are they going to steward our fragile landscapes and precious natural resources? Giving kids an opportunity to have fun in the outdoors and, in doing so, inspiring lifelong land stewards is Oxbow Education’s (OxEd) raison d’être.
Inspired by a potpourri of outdoor education philosophies, values and approaches, OxEd delivers programs that children, first and foremost, enjoy and learn from naturally. There’s no denying that our ultimate goal, to “prepare the individual…to play a productive role towards improving life and protecting the environment”(3) is a serious one. But we try to achieve it in fun, engaging and enchanting ways.
The concept of environmental maturity(4) has been especially helpful for us “to think with.” The essential idea is that children become environmentally aware and active (or, environmentally mature) through a six-step process that begins with them simply taking pleasure in the great outdoors. Atop this simple “taking pleasure” building block are five additional steps that focus on slowly, but intentionally, building kids’ understanding of their place in the natural world.
The diagram above illustrates the steps. When kids arrive at the farm on the first day of summer camp or in the opening minutes of their school field trip, our priority is to help them feel at ease. Their openness to learn hinges on their feeling safe, secure, and allowed to have fun. The effectiveness of our programs is entirely dependent on a welcoming environment. If a child enters summer camp with some anxiety this quickly dissipates in the comfort of games, songs, and stories they can relate to and help create.
Oxbow offers kids learning freedom, but with guidance and focus from an Oxbow educator. Rather than telling kids about nature or demonstrating how it works, we facilitate their direct experiences in nature, allowing them to observe, engage, and understand in their own ways.
While we dream of a world where all people understand their role in nature, we recognize that this comes about incrementally over time and exposure to the natural world. A child who comes to Oxbow wholly terrified of bees and leaves with only trepidation after understanding why bees sting, represents programmatic success. With this step in the right direction, we could expect that in time s/he will begin to appreciate bees and may even take action to help bee populations grow by planting native flowering plants around her home.
Taking a page from our curious and imaginative kids, we at Oxbow often wonder: what might our valley, county, country, or planet look and be like if they were populated predominantly by environmentally mature individuals? Someday, maybe, they will be.
This story appeared in our newsletter March 14. Sign up to receive it.
1: Rideout, Victoria J., Ulla G. Foehr, and Donald F. Roberts. “Generation M2: Media in the Lives of 8 to 18 year Olds: A Kaiser Family Foundation Study, January 2010.” (2011).
2: Natural Learning Initiative. “Benefits of connecting children with nature: Why naturalize outdoor learning environments.” (2012).
3. Sobel, David. “Look, Don’t Touch.” Orion Magazine. https://orionmagazine.org/article/look-dont-touch1/. 2012.
4. Powell, Richard. “Seeking Environmental Maturity at Starker Forests.” Forest Education. www.clearingmagazine.org/online p.60, Clearing 2012.