Monday, January 27, 2014

Mother earth knows best (cont'd)

“Our educational system thinks that if they’re not tying computers into their lessons, than they’re not providing full service to their kids,” O’ Connor says.

Increased technology, both in school and at home, is a major part of Louv’s Nature Deficit Disorder theory. Studies done by The Children’s Hospital and Regional Medical Center in Seattle suggest that children who spend a majority of their time focused on electronic stimulation are narrowing their senses physiologically and psychologically.

Neuroscience has allowed us to study the brain while it’s using electronics. “When we go to our computers, when we get a text, there’s a dopamine response,” Amy Seidl, a Crow’s Path parent, as well as Environmental Studies Professor at the University of Vermont, says. “The ease of the electronic overwhelms the inertia of being outside.”

NDD acknowledges how the replacement of outdoor play with time spent using electronics impacts childhood development. With our younger generation using electronics so often, there has been an upward trend of myopia, also known as near-sightedness.

A practice utilized at Crow’s Path that works to engage children’s senses is a practice called ‘sit spot’. Each student picks a place in the woods that they visit weekly, to observe the sounds, smells, and sights of the woods around them. During sit spot, all of the children, to my surprise, are able to sit quietly, relaxed and observant.

Jennifer Harris, another Crow’s Path parent, respects the education that her daughter receives at Crow’s Path. “As a parent, I value learning about the natural world as much as I do math and reading,” Harris says. “They don’t have to be separate, right? I want [my daughter] to be able to understand the natural world.”

The Crow’s Path curriculum suggests that capturing local nature in lesson plans is important to nature connection. The Amazon, endangered pandas, and saving the polar bears are frequent topics taught to children about the environment in traditional schools, yet it is rare that students will encounter these in their lives.

Any given Crow’s Path student knows not to eat the poisonous Canada yew berries growing on the west side of the trail, how to avoid poison ivy, and that they can carve the branch of quaking aspen easier than an oak. O’Connor and his team make place-based education a priority at Crow’s Path. His students can walk through the forest with a level of confidence that people twice their age may never achieve.

Thinking about the future of our environmental policy and legislation while considering NDD’s perceived presence in our youth can be discouraging for environmentalists, as well as parents. If the majority of our children are so disconnected from nature, what does this mean for the future of our Earth?

“I think it’s important for children to be connected to the natural world,” Harris says of her daughter and her peers. “If they become totally disconnected, they may make future decisions that are not good for our rivers, plants, and animals.”

If the correlation between a lack of time spent outdoors and the increasingly common physical and mental health issues youth are currently experiencing is more than just a coincidence, programs like Crow’s Path could be just the ‘cure’ NDD-believers are searching for.

Reconnecting youth with nature doesn’t have to be complicated. Nature Deficit Disorder or not, the natural world can be sought out as a place of wisdom and wonder. The process of nature connection can be as involved as an overnight family hiking trip to the mountains, or even seeking out the nearest nature connection program; or it can be as easy as learning the names of the trees down the road, or a simple stroll through the woods.

Melanie Wetmore is an Environmental Studies student at UVM, with an interest in both education and journalism. She was an all-star intern for us.

Thursday, January 23, 2014

Mother earth knows best

One of our UVM interns from last semester, Melanie Wetmore, wrote a paper on Nature Deficit Disorder, a proposed framework for understanding the effects of our cultural disconnect from nature. Presented here is a shortened version of her essay. Enjoy!

Mother Earth Knows Best
Why reconnecting children with nature might just be the cure for America’s newest ‘disorder’

On a brisk October morning in Burlington, Vermont, a strange, nasally, high- pitched squawk echoes throughout a misty, dew drenched field. While most elementary school teachers don’t get their students attention by screeching American crow call, Teage O’Connor’s way of ringing the morning school bell is slightly more exotic. The children, currently playing in the nearby field, excitedly spring over to the trailhead.

Crow’s Path is a nature connection program in Vermont focused on providing children with a positive outdoor experience. Students miss their regular school day once a week to come out to the woods. These alternative education programs utilize nature-based mentoring to reconnect youth to the natural world.

Over the past two decades, children in the United States have lost an estimated nine to twelve hours of outdoor free play per week. Instead, sedentary childhood lifestyles are becoming the norm, with children spending about thirty hours a week in front of a television or computer screen.

More than one third of our American youth are categorized as ‘obese’ or ‘overweight’. Pediatricians warn that our current youth may be the first American generation to die at a younger age than their parents, a trend unique in American history.

The rate at which American children are prescribed antidepressants has doubled in the past five years, with the most notable of increases occurring in pre-school aged children. Almost 8 million American children suffer from mental disorders, with Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD) topping the list. In his novel Last Child in the Woods, Richard Louv claims Nature Deficit Disorder as an appropriate layover description of a potential aggravator of attention difficulties for many children.

Nature Deficit Disorder (NDD) isn’t a medical diagnosis, but rather a term coined by Louv. NDD describes the implications for human health from the developing void between humans and nature.

The ‘biophilia hypothesis’, theorized by Edward O. Wilson, suggests that humans have an instinctive relationship with other living organisms, both flora and fauna. Nature mentors throughout the state agree that it is every human’s natural instinct to play in and be a part of nature. And today at Crow’s Path- that’s exactly what they’ll do.

Nature-based mentoring, a strategy used at Crow’s Path, focuses on practicing primitive skills, naturalist teachings, and nature immersion to help students build self-esteem, engage their senses, and develop outdoor skills. The Coyote’s Guide to Connecting with Nature, a manual written by Jon Young for nature mentors, bases it’s curriculum on the indigenous ‘medicine wheel’, modeled after the four Cardinal directions.

The medicine wheel is symbolic of the ‘never ending cycle of life’, and the natural cycles all humans encounter within their lifetime. North American indigenous tribes used this practice for teaching, healing, and cultural traditions.

Each morning at Crow’s Path begins in the East with spontaneous games. The curriculum follows the sun, moving next into the South. The South portion of the day is focused on teaching naturalist skills such as fire by friction, wild edible identification, or carving. Next is the West, when students gather around a fire to share stories from their day. Lastly is North, expressed through personal reflection.

Crow’s Path, located on the Lake Champlain waterfront was founded by O’ Connor in 2009. A forest flourishing with biodiversity surrounds Crow’s Path campus on Burlington’s Rock Point property. Deep red sumac berries line the trails, puffs of milkweed fluff drift through the sunny meadows, and purple asters litter the waterfront beaches that Crow’s Path claims as its classroom. be continued