Shortly after Isaac was born I read Last Child in the Woods by Richard Louv. If you are not familiar with this book, in it Louv proposes that our children suffer from "nature deficit disorder." He believes that they lack the connection with nature that previous generations have had and this "deficit" is detrimental to their health and well-being, as well as having a negative affect on our society as a whole. Last Child in the Woods has become one of my parenting handbooks. I want Isaac to feel connected with nature and to have the freedom to explore and discover the natural world.
Last year I attended a workshop based on Michael Gurian's book Minds of Boys which examined how boys learn and how best to teach them. Boys need a different classroom structure than girls. They need freedom to move around to stimulate their brains and they need to be able to express themselves verbally. Louv would add that boys, in fact all children, need time outside to help them focus. He believes that nature has a calming affect and goes so far as to assert that the rise in diagnoses of ADD/ADHD in children is linked to the disassociation with the natural world.
I have taken the messages in these two books to heart in my parenting and in my teaching. Boys are surrounded by women during their childhoods. Their moms are often the most important person in their lives and their formative years are mostly spent in school being taught mostly by women. And, though many women don't want this getting out, we don't really understand what makes men (boys) tick. I can't teach boys the same way that I remember being taught. It won't work for them. So I need to learn how to teach them in a way that will meet their needs. And I can't parent Isaac the way I was parented. I need to understand his motivations and needs in order to help guide him through his childhood into adulthood.
I have found that it is easier for me to adjust my classroom techniques than it is to change the way I approach exposing Isaac to the natural world. I enjoy being outside and appreciate nature, but I prefer to experience it from beneath a tree with a book rather than down in the woods behind our house digging in the mud and getting eaten by bugs. But down in the woods with the dirt and the bugs is where Isaac will get the most out of being outside. There he can touch and hear and see and smell, though preferably not taste, the world around him. Isaac is content to sit by a stream for half an hour stirring the water with a stick making "soup" and studying how the dirt moves and I am ready to move on after five minutes. Matt is a better nature guide than I am, but I am trying.
In my quest to make playing outside less of an effort for me, I attended a workshop this past weekend at the North Carolina Zoo on working with children in outdoor environments. The day was spent learning how children play and how playing outside contributes to learning. I learned a lot and left the workshop energized and excited. As the school year begins I hope that I can hold on to that excitement and channel it into my teaching, finding ways to bring nature and playing into my classroom. But, more importantly, I hope that Isaac will benefit from what I learned as we play together. I am ready to go exploring, stick in hand, sneakers on. Bring on the dirt! But no spiders please.