filed under: health and social benefits
A growing body of scientific evidence suggests that the creation of nature-rich urban environments, including schoolyards with natural play spaces and gardens, can help improve physical and mental health, cognitive skills, creativity, and social bonding.
At a time when children are experiencing high rates of stress, depression, obesity, diabetes and other health risks associated with sedentary lifestyles, they are also experiencing a disconnect from the natural world. The effects of this disconnect are particularly acute in densely populated, economically challenged urban neighborhoods where health risks are already high.
In many neighborhoods, the standard play space is a barren asphalt playground or a concrete slab surrounded by chain link fence—an environment that many people would find unsuitable in a kennel. Too many children have no access to quality school grounds. Too many school districts have decreased or eliminated recess and field trips.
Nearly half of school administrators report having cut physical education to increase academic time-on-task. Recent research associates long hours of sitting with a raft of health risks, and yet these trends continue despite the urgency of what public health professionals call a “pandemic of inactivity.”
At the same time, another growing body of scientific evidence suggests that the creation of nature-rich urban environments, including schoolyards with natural play spaces and gardens, can help improve physical and mental health, cognitive skills, creativity, and social bonding. New longitudinal studies also suggest that nature-rich schools can help raise standardized test scores. And children in low-income communities appear to benefit proportionally more from access to green space than those in higher-income communities.
Though many policy makers continue to view digital technology as a silver bullet for education, school districts that green their schools can expect a high rate of return on their investment. Schools can, in fact, be pro-tech and pro-nature. When classroom technology is balanced with hands-on active learning outdoors in natural environments, the benefits of both approaches are multiplied. By using more of their senses, by moving their bodies, by experiencing the awe and wonder of nature, tech-savvy children can maximize the abilities and skills that come from both the natural and the virtual worlds.
Opportunities to take students outside into more natural environments can also reduce teacher burnout, according to one study. Natural schoolyards can strengthen the social fabric of the wider community. During the school day, they provide opportunities for children to play and learn in nature; and when these green oases are opened to the public after hours and on weekends, families spend more quality time together, elders enjoy walking paths and sitting peacefully outdoors among neighbors, and children enjoy more active and independent play in safe places.
The children and nature movement will be effective only in a wider context of social, economic and racial justice. It must value the inherent capacities within communities, including existing social networks, local wisdom and inventiveness, and cultural knowledge about the natural world. While not a panacea, the creation of green schoolyards is one way to assure that all children—not just some—receive the gifts of nature so essential to mind, body and spirit.
Published January 2016
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