By Lani Walker
In the beginning stages of my Thesis work, I have focused on the current situation of elementary education in Southern Illinois. In many aspects of the local educational programs and facilities, Southern Illinois seems to offer many great schools which produce successful, competitive, and thriving young students. In general, the Elementary Schools in Southern Illinois teach children in grades Kindergarten through fifth grade, with about 20 students in each classroom managed by one teacher. When speaking with local teachers, one aspect of education which seemed to be lacking in the daily curriculum is environmental education. From my conversations with local teachers and students in Southern Illinois, as well as personal knowledge from attending the local schools myself, I am finding evidence that the educational facilities in Southern Illinois have allowed the connection to the natural world to disappear. Recess has been shortened from one hour twice a day, to half an hour of outdoor time per day. The local schools are favoring movie clips to actual field trips and excursions. The educational facility has removed itself and its children from their environment. Nearby fields of trees and walking paths which once surrounded the schools are cleared for additional parking spaces. I have personally seen classrooms which have been designed without direct access or even a view to the outside. Even if a teacher wanted to show their young biology students how the changing seasons affect the nearby vegetation, there would be nothing to see anymore (…so, a movie about seasons is the next best option without leaving the classroom). It seems that the student’s education is so saturated with technology that their hands-on experiences with their local environment have vanished.
Although much of my research is preliminary, I have read numerous online stories from parents and educators all over the United States observing the same thing; there is no balance between the use of technology for education and the use of the natural environment for education in the public schools. Currently, the technology is taking over. However, with the ever-growing need for students to be computer savvy, you may ask, ‘Why are connections with the natural environment important in a child’s life anyway?’ To begin, spending time in nature has been documented to improve a child’s learning abilities in multiple ways (National Outdoor Leadership School NOLS). 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. Hands-on learning experiences can be incorporated into nearly every subject, and this thesis proposes an educational facility which can assist and encourage those experiments. My goal for this thesis project is to use my own research and the numerous case studies from others to design an Elementary School for Southern Illinois which creates a balance between innovative technology and hands-on outdoor learning. I hope to create a [hypothetical] educational facility which inspires a child’s sense of wonder, curiosity, and joy of learning, while creating a lasting attachment to the environment.