Dr. Montessori’s understanding of the importance of the child’s connection with nature, and its effect on healthy human development, has been validated through recent research. In his book, “The Last Child in the Woods: Saving Our Children from Nature-Deficit Disorder,” journalist Richard Louv notes the significant role that nature plays in personality integration. Like Montessori, who stated that “when children come into contact with nature they reveal their strength,” Louv also believes that “nature calms us, helps us focus, and excites our senses.” His 15 year study, involving the interviewing of parents, teachers, college students, scientists, religious leaders, child development specialists and environmentalists, helps bring credence to this theory. Unfortunately, studies show that less and less time is spent in the outdoors by children, and that “their intimacy with nature on a day-to-day basis is fading.” A fifth grader put it best when he said, “I like to play indoors ’cause that’s where all the electrical outlets are.” This increasing trend of the child’s disassociation with nature is evident everywhere. Louv cites several reasons:
The disappearing access to natural surroundings.
“Grandparents of today have condos, not farms; eighty percent of Americans live in urban areas; and tree houses are now strictly forbidden under rules of the gated community.”
The competition with television and computers:
“Children are spending more weekly hours with the television or computer than their parents are spending at work.”
There is more homework and other time constraints put on children.
“During the week parents and children are in constant motion, racing between school, games, shopping, work – and American children spend virtually no time in their own backyard.”
(UCLA Center of Everyday Lives of Families)
The fear of stranger-danger.
“Round the clock news coverage conditions them to believe in an epidemic of child snatchings, despite evidence that the number has been falling for years.”
As our culture continues to ignore the problem of what Louv calls “nature-deficit disorder”, a couple of studies have become eye openers for further thought. Some of the most interesting research comes from Harvard University scientists and Pulitzer Prize-winning author, Edward Wilson. In his “biophilla” hypothesis he states that “humans have an innate affinity for the natural world, probably a biologically based need integral to our development as individuals.” Other research by Environmental psychologists, which are reported in 2003 is also worth noting, especially because it relates to mental health. According to the study, “nature in or around the home, or simply a room with a view of a natural landscape, helped protect the psychological well-being of children.” It seems then that the child’s contact with nature is as important to health as good nutrition and sleep!
These two prior studies are compelling, but probably the most intriguing are two other studies, involving the positive effects of the exposure to the outdoors, and the gains experienced with student academic performance. One of these studies was done by the Human-Environment Research Laboratory at the University of Illinois. Here they discovered that “children as young as 5 showed a significant reduction in the symptoms of ADD when engaged with nature.” Apparently, something called “the fascination factor” (related to exposure to nature) relieves fatigue and improves the capacity to pay attention. The other study was done by the State Education and Environmental Roundtable. This research involved over 100 schools in 16 states, and is especially interesting because of its data related to the “outdoor classroom” concept, a key Montessori principal. The study found that “outdoor classrooms produce student gains in social studies, science, language arts, math, test scores, GPA, problem-solving, critical thinking, and decision making.”
With all the evidence the solution seems simple: let’s save our children from “nature-deficit” disorder. Louv stated it best, however, when he presented his powerful message at a Montessori teacher’s conference in Atlanta this January. “I am not suggesting that we bring back the free-range childhood of the 1950s. Those days are over. But, with deeper understanding of the importance of nature play to healthy child development, and to their sense of connection to the world, we can create safe zones for nature exploration. We can preserve the open space in our cites, and even design and build new kinds of communities, using the principles of green urbanism. We can weave nature therapy into our health-care system, and nature experiences into our classrooms, as Maria Montessori called us to do long ago. We can launch and support a NO CHILD LEFT INSIDE MOVEMENT. And we can challenge environmental organizations to take this issue seriously. For if the disconnection between children and nature continues, who will become the future stewards of the earth – and who will swing on birches?”