Nature-Based Education Sounds Nice, but Let's Start by Sending Kids Out to Play

We don't need to overcomplicate things.

girl balances on a mossy log

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Schools need to do a better job of teaching kids about nature. This is the message from a new report released by the Stockholm Environment Institute and the Council on Energy Environment and Water, ahead of a UN meeting set to take place in early June.

The report describes the world as being at a "boiling point", with humanity desperately needing to revamp its relationship with nature if it hopes to survive. The report makes various recommendations for how to do so, but the one that caught my eye was a call for a global campaign on nature-based education. As a mother of three children, a forest school supporter, and author of an upcoming book on screen-free parenting, that's not surprising. I dug deeper.

Nature-Based Curricula

The report says that "classic environmental education favours curricula abundant in ecological knowledge but ignores practical skills and social circumstances." This, it says, is inadequate for children to develop a deep relationship with nature. It calls for more effective programs that occur over an extended period of time, teach kids about existing and local environmental issues, apply practical skills, create a sense of ownership, and connect them with role models and mentors. It also recommends weaving Indigenous principles into the lessons and informing students of sustainability efforts in the Global South. The overall goal is to teach kids that they're "part of the natural community."

These are noble goals that I would love to see rolled out in schools around the world. But I would question the idea that it is the responsibility of schools to teach all of this. The lessons described above are complex topics that would make more sense to children if they were built on a solid foundation of familiarity with the outdoors, except that kids nowadays spend a mere four to seven minutes a day playing outside—compared to more than seven hours a day spent in front of screens.

There is such an enormous discrepancy between what this call to education wants and what kids are actually doing that it seems preposterous to think that discussions about reforestation and "soil-friendly crops" in rural India (as the report suggests) would somehow help them to develop a personal relationship with nature. While the exploration of practical and local environment issues could be quite engaging, I can't help but think it misses the point. 

Send Them Outside

Children don't need yet another classroom-based lesson or updated curriculum. They just need to spend time outside. And when they're out there, their time should be unstructured. That's what the campaign should be about, as it gets at the real root of the issue here, which is a profound disconnect from the natural world.

Children should be left to roam, explore, play freely, push the boundaries of what their bodies and minds are capable of doing. Children are embodied creatures who learn best when all their senses are engaged, and nature has a marvelous way of doing precisely that. It is only through constant, prolonged, and unrestricted year-round exposure to the natural world that children will learn to know and love it. No lesson in the classroom can ever teach them this, no matter how hard a teacher tries.

This is where parents come in. Parents are the primary gatekeepers between children and the outdoors, and our culture—tragically—errs on the side of keeping that gate closed most of the time. This is not OK. Children deserve to be released from the boundaries of their homes and the mind-numbing devices within them. They deserve to develop a personal relationship with the world that nurtures them, even if they don't know or understand it yet.

Outdoor play is straightforward and simple, cheap and effective. It could be enabled and normalized through better urban design, school participation, and campaigns aimed at parents. That change alone would not only inform children of what's going on in the natural world around them, but teach them that nature is infinitely interesting and can be a source of comfort, inspiration, and entertainment.

Ultimately this aligns with the global call to climate action, since the only way to motivate people to a cause is by touching their hearts or tapping into a deep emotional connection. As long as nature remains an abstract concept or a scary distant place that children never visit, it's difficult for them to grow up feeling like it's worth fighting to save.

Forest schools are a wonderful supplement to children's education, as suggested by the report (and my own kids love theirs), but they're not a realistic suggestion for everyone to do. Many people live in cities without access to wilderness, and the relatively few programs that do exist in the U.S. and Canada tend to be expensive and limited in size. Outdoor play, on the other hand, is accessible to all, whether urban or rural. It could occur in a small courtyard or urban park, or in a vast rural wilderness.

A Connection to Nature Starts at Home

If you're a parent, I urge you to make outdoor play a priority. Time spent playing outside is not wasted. It makes everyone in the family happier, healthier, and more relaxed in the end. Think of it as contributing to an underdeveloped part of your child's education, as a crucial extracurricular activity that may not have a participation fee but will give your child valuable skills and confidence. 

There are various ways to spend more time outside. Mandate an hour of outdoor play right after school, before homework starts. It will help them to focus when the time comes to sit down again. Insist that your child walk to and from school, either with you or alone. Go to urban parks and spend hours there; bring snacks and books and a blanket. Eat meals, read books, and play games outside, whether it's on a balcony or in a backyard. Plan bigger weekend getaways like hikes, camping trips, or visits to nature preserves. When your kids have friends over, insist that play dates be screen-free and outdoors, if weather allows.

Always be thinking of ways to shift your indoor hours to outdoor ones, shrinking the former and amplifying the latter. And if schools do get around to implementing the kind of expanded nature-based curricula that the reports calls for, your kid will be better off for having an established relationship with nature already. The theoretical knowledge will build on that and make more sense.

View Article Sources
  1. "Unlocking a Better Future." Stockholm Environment Institute and the Council on Energy Environment and Water.