By: Lani Walker
As a graduate student in architecture, we are currently in the earliest stages of creating and researching our chosen thesis topic. I came to realize what I wanted to do for my thesis while several large trees in my parent’s backyard had to be removed due to some type of tree disease. I couldn’t believe how emotional I became while watching the tree be sawed off piece by piece, tossed in the back of a truck, and taken away to a landfill somewhere. Those trees had become part of my life – without them, the atmosphere of the entire backyard had changed somehow. While I looked around the newly manicured backyard, I began to realize how the vast undisturbed acreage behind my parents’ house played a huge role in my upbringing. I walked through those budding trees and vegetation everyday on my way home from elementary and middle school. I was wary of the snakes, foxes, and other animals whose home I was walking through. I experienced how the land changed with the seasons, and how the land eventually changed with time. This land was my prime spot for all day explorations during summer break, wading through the creek after a heavy rain, and having massive snowball fights with all the neighborhood children. Even after the neighborhood children became teenagers, the field was still our meeting spot when we snuck out past curfew. We had developed our own path system where we knew the location of every tree, every vine of poison ivy, and every hiding spot for foxes and other animals. However, today, all those paths have grown up with vegetation from lack of people walking through them. Many of the trees still stand tall and strong, with our names carved in them. I am physically and emotionally connected to this land, and I will always feel a certain responsibility towards it. I feel privileged that the land brought me so much joy and so much opportunity to learn from it. Sadly, such a connection with the natural environment has slipped away from many people, especially American children.
Generations ago, children spent more time outside using the natural environment and their imagination to complete educational projects, participate in school sports, or play less structured activities. Exposure to the natural world brought opportunities for children to make sense of their surroundings and to develop their own sense of place. Today, the typical American child spend nearly thirty hours per week with electronic devises, thirty-five hours per week in an educational facility, while only ten hours per week with nature. Within this research, the opportunity has arisen to increase the amount of time children spend with the natural environment by combining nature with the time spent in an educational facility. My thesis proposes to create an elementary school in which the built environment fully integrates the natural environment and nature education in the daily academic lives of elementary students in Southern Illinois.
In recent years, I had witnessed that educational facilities in Southern Illinois have allowed the connection to the natural world to disappear. In three of the major school districts in Southern Illinois, recess time has been cut in half. The districts are favoring movies and internet clips to actual field trips or excursions. Lessons are directed towards test taking, while less time is spent investigating and learning through actual first-hand experiences. One positive aspect of many elementary schools in Southern Illinois is the recent incorporation of a greenhouse or nature infused area, however children have only restricted and strictly supervised access to it. In general, the curriculum for children in Southern Illinois schools is becoming narrower, and more and more lessons are based on technology. Although technology opens up a completely different world which is important, technology has hindered children’s usage of their natural environment and their lasting sense of attachment to a place. This lack of connection can produce both indifference and ignorance in children’s early perceptions of the world around them and their roles in enjoying, learning from, and protecting it.
The reimagined educational facility my thesis is proposing will take action to create a balance between technology and nature, while rediscovering the benefits of incorporating nature into everyday life in an educational setting. Respected national organizations including the American Academy of Pediatrics, the American Psychological Association, and the National Association for the Education of Young Children have expressed concern about the present trend of limiting outdoor play during the school day which they believe has restricted children’s access and experience with nature (Ginsburg, 2007). These organizations are unwavering that hands on learning with the natural environment at a child’s direct access are an enlightened way of learning. Reading about the way a plant grows in a book cannot compare to digging in the dirt with a spade, planting the seed in the ground, spilling water from a watering spout, and watching the plant’s daily growth. It is through these natural experiences that children can develop an attachment to the earth and an understanding of the environment around them. Through an elementary school which relies on the natural environment as a classroom itself, the school could promote children’s ability to connect - not only through technology - but to the living, natural environment which is increasingly being left out of childhood in America.
Thesis Topic Sources:
American Academy of Pediatrics <http://www.aap.org/en-us/Pages/Default.aspx>
Association for Environmental and Outdoor Education <http://aeoe.org/>
Ginsburg, K.R., & the Committee on Communications and the Committee on
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through their gardening activities at a midwestern early education program. Applied
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Marcon, R. (1999, March). Differential impact of preschool models on development and
early learning of inner-city children: A three-cohort study. Journal of
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Nature Action Collaborative for Children. (2007). The Nature Action Collaborative for
Children’s mission and vision.
San Mateo Outdoor Education http://www.smcoe.k12.ca.us/outdoored/index.html
Seed School <http://theseedschool.com/outdoor-education/>
Wike, J. (2006, September, October). Why outdoor spaces for children matter so much.
Wilson, E.O. (1984). Biophilia. Massachusetts: Harvard University Press.