Vitamin N: The missing ingredient in the 21st Century Curriculum

This week’s blog comes to us from Dr Tonia Gray, Associate Professor and Senior Researcher at the Centre for Educational Research, University of Western Sydney, Australia.

tonia grayAs a senior member in the Centre for Educational Research at UWS, Associate Professor Tonia Gray researches our estranged human-nature relationship and its impact on child development and well-being, an area known as Eco-pedagogies. For over 30 years, Tonia has written extensively on nature-based practices in teacher education and has been an advocate of infusing outdoor and ‘green’ learning experiences into Australia’s National Curriculum renewal process. Tonia recently presented at the Lessons from Near and Far International Outdoor Learning Conference on 3rd July.

In the words of the renowned philosopher Henry David Thoreau: We need the tonic of wilderness. And yet, in the 21st Century, we find our children increasingly without this ‘tonic’, or what Richard Louv (2011) calls ‘Vitamin N,’ for Nature. All available evidence suggests that young Australians are becoming less likely to engage in free play in outdoor environments (Maller & Townsend, 2006).

In part, the isolation can be attributed to the screen-ager generation and their choice of indoor hobbies, tethered to screens and electrical outlets (for instance social media, computer games, Wii, Nintendo, or television). Given this situation, outdoor educators agree that contemporary students are in dire need of a dose of nature if they are to grow up healthy. In this same vein, David Orr writes poignantly: “The message is urgent: unplug, boot it down, get off-line, get outdoors, breathe again, become real in the real world”.

Just last month, the NSW Auditor-General, Peter Achterstraat, called on the Australian Department of Education and Communities to increase physical activity in NSW government primary schools, who aren’t even providing the minimum laid out in the existing curriculum guidelines, stating that:

“Around 30 per cent of government primary schools are not providing the required two hours of physical education and sport per week.” (Achterstraat, 2012, p. 11)

Researchers have argued that young people need to actively and repeatedly engage with the natural world in order to mature (Kahn & Kellert, 2002; Kellert, 2005; Lester & Maudsley, 2007; Louv, 2008). The relationship of the outdoors to growth and education has been widely acknowledged for centuries. For instance, the German term ‘kindergarten’ means literally, ‘children in the garden,’ clearly indicating the importance of outdoor activity.

Disconcertingly, on the cusp of educational reform in Australia with the implementation of a National Curriculum, we find that the Australian Curriculum Reporting Authority (ACARA) has omitted reference to the outdoors from the draft Health and Physical Education curriculum. The oversight neglects not only traditions of using natural environments for education, but also best practices internationally and emerging research on the dangers of Vitamin N deficiency.

Benefits of Human-Nature Connection

Over the past two to three decades, researchers have recognized the importance of human-nature connection as a determinant of health and wellbeing (see, for example, Kellert & Wilson, 1993; Orr, 2004; Stone, 2009). In contrast to the Australian case, Scandinavian schools, acknowledging the importance of outdoor activity for healthy development, immerse children in nature. Based on eco-pedagogical principles, school children spend approximately three hours each school day outside – rain, hail, snow or shine – in all four seasons. In spite of a climate that would seem to discourage outdoor activities, educators argue that there is no excuse for children staying indoors; one educator told me during a recent visit that their mantra is, ‘there is no such thing as bad weather, only bad clothing.’

This begs the question, why does our 21st Century Australian school curriculum have a growing aversion to taking kids outdoors, especially when we have a mild climate and an endless landscape of possibilities? Louv (2011) argues that children could do with a healthy dose of Vitamin N in our curriculum, especially as their leisure activity is increasingly indoors. In the face of the growing need, a child in the outdoors is an endangered species in contemporary schooling (see Gray, Martin & Boyle, 2012).

The result is that some children are becoming outdoor illiterate. Due to the inordinate time spent indoors on level floor surfaces, for example, outdoor educators are finding that Australian children cannot walk confidently and skillfully in outdoor environs; they are unfamiliar with uneven ground, crossing rivers or negotiating steep hilly terrain. Quite clearly, our modern child is not ‘nature smart’ and we need to redress this imbalance (Stone, 2009).

Nature and Well-being

The therapeutic role of nature has been documented as far back as classical Chinese and Greek civilizations (Townsend & Weerasuriya, 2010). Cultures around the world have an intuitive sense that natural environments possess restorative power; we know that outdoor settings ameliorate stress, improve mood, enhance coping ability and assist in combating depression (Nielsen & Hansen, 2007). Ironically, relaxation tapes provide artificial analogues of bird song, babbling streams, or waves crashing on the sand because we insulate ourselves from precisely these sensations. This effect of nature has been linked to biophilia, a term coined by Harvard biologist Edward O. Wilson (1984) to describe an innate love of nature and an affiliation to all living things shaped by our species’ evolutionary heritage (Sacks, 2009).

Recently, in Victoria we have seen the advent of ‘Feel Blue: Touch Green,’ an innovative mental health program using green spaces to address depression and mental illness (Townsend, 2006). This novel program is an outgrowth of studies which reveal separation from nature is implicated in declining physical, mental, social and spiritual wellbeing.

Australia’s 21st century school curriculum needs to produce a generation of students with greater, not less, environmental awareness. One way this can be accomplished is if we promote access to outdoor environments and develop an affinity with nature. Now more than ever, educators should be ensuring that children get their recommended daily allowance of vitamin N.

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References:   Achterstraat, P. (2012).NSW Auditor-General’s Report Physical activity in government primary schools. Department of Education and Communities.    Australian Curriculum, Assessment and Reporting Authority (ACARA) (2012). The Draft Shape of the Australian Curriculum: Health and Physical Education (HPE) See http://www.acara.edu.au/curriculum/hpe.htmlGray, T., Martin, P. & Boyle, I. (2012). Outdoor Education and the Australian National Curriculum. Professional Educator Vol 11( 4) pp 16-18.    Kahn, P. H. & Kellert, S. R. (2002). Children and Nature: Psychological, sociocultural and evolutionary investigations. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.   Kellert, S.R. (2005). Building for Life: Designing and understanding the human- nature connection. Washington: Island Press.   Kellert, S.R. & Wilson, E.O. (1993). The Biophilia Hypothesis. Washington: Island Press.   Lester, S. & Maudsley, M. (2007). Play, Naturally: A Review of Children’s Natural Play. London: Play England.   Louv, R. (2008). Last Child in the Woods. Chapel Hill, North Carolina: Algonquin Books of Chapel Hill.   Louv, R. (2011). The Nature Principle: Human restoration and the end of Nature-Deficit Disorder. Chapel Hill, North Carolina: Algonquin Books of Chapel Hill.   Maller, C. J. and Townsend, M. (2006). Children’s Mental Health and Wellbeing and Hands- on Contact with Nature: Perceptions of Principals and Teachers. International Journal of Learning 12(4): 359-372.   Nielson, T.S. & Hansen, K.B. (2007). Do green areas affect health? Results from a Danish survey on the use of green areas and health indicators. Health and Place, 13(4), 395-413.    Orr, D.W. (2004). Earth in Mind: On Education, Environment, and the Human Prospect. Washington, D.C.: Island Press.   Sacks, O. (2009). Forward in L. Campbell & A. Wiesen (eds), Restorative Commons: Creating health and wellbeing through urban landscapes. USDA Forest Service, PA, pp 1-3.   Stone, M. (2009). Smart by Nature: Schooling for Sustainability. Centre for Ecoliteracy, Watershed Media Berkeley, CA.   Townsend, M. (2006). Feel Blue? Touch Green! Participation in forest/woodland management as a treatment for depression, Urban Forestry and Urban Greening, 5: 111-120.   Townsend, M. & Weerasuriya, R. (2010). Beyond Blue to Green: The benefits of contact with nature. Deakin University.

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