September 2018

At risk with nature

Linette Bernard, Feathers & Ink

How many times have you read about the changing picture of childhood in this country (and maybe even around the globe)? You can read about how society has changed in the last generation plus, how the rate of childhood obesity is escalating, the amount of time young people (all people!) spend in front of a screen of some sort is increasing, about how hardly anyone spends time outside, let alone outside in “nature.” (I put nature in quotes because we each have our own definition of nature.)

Several years ago, my husband sent me an article from the Telegraph of London that introduced me to a new concept: shifting baseline syndrome. While the Telegraph article was talking about the change in common songbirds in rural England as noticed by the change of bird song heard, a fisheries biologist, Daniel Pauly, coined the term in 1995. According to an op-ed piece on (as published in the LA Times, November 2002), “Shifting baselines are the chronic, slow, hard-to-notice changes in things, from the disappearance of birds and frogs in the countryside to the increased drive time from L.A. to San Diego.”

Do an internet search for shifting baselines and you will, of course, find many links to fisheries studies, but you will see that this idea is also drifting into other disciplines. I think our view of ‘childhood’ has slowly shifted since the 1970s.

So, the idea of what ‘play’ is has also shifted and many children today have not experienced the free, unstructured play that I did as a child. Raise your hand if you’ve seen something on Facebook about staying outside after the evening meal until the street light (or yard light for you country kids) came on? How do we shift back to free play where children can learn to take risks and learn their own limits?


Playgrounds can be associated with a school or childcare setting, but are also available about the community. Families should be on the lookout for updated playspaces! Adventure playgrounds may be coming back…

What about in our classroom?

Most Iowa children have already returned to the classroom for the 2018-19 school year. My hope (dream?) is that more teachers each summer will find professional development opportunities that inspire them to get their classroom outside and learning in nature and giving students the opportunity for free play! The same would hold for all our early childhood educators and care providers.

What does learning in the outdoors look like? For a childcare provider, it might just look like young children playing and not on the built environment, but with the loose parts of nature and the grass, soil, and trees… but the staff have planned for age-appropriate risk taking and exploration. Unstructured outdoor play helps counteract the negative aspects of too much screen time.

But what about in an early childhood classroom setting? Around the country ‘forest kindergartens’ and nature preschools are available. Both of these settings use nature as the organizing principle for the program. Much to all of the child’s school day is spent outside.

If your child’s elementary school only has a traditional ‘built’ playground, talk with teachers and administrators about adding a natural play area, maybe starting with an area for the younger students.

All students would benefit from having garden space to tend, accessible green space, and a natural area to use for science, reading, and math. Building such an area could be part of developing the student’s sense of place.

A “sense of place” refers to a child’s (or any person’s) connection with their community and natural environment. A sense of place is developed in the classroom with a place-based education approach that fosters those connections. Place-based education immerses children in their local community, landscapes, heritage, and experiences. It is using the local natural and human world to learn science, social studies, math, art, music, and language. Families can also be the catalyst for connecting family members to local places.

Links for learning

Field investigations create an essential link between classroom activities and what students see and experience outside the school settings. They can provide students with examples of how the science concepts they learn in class are used in everyday life and encourage students to ask questions, explore, observe, and investigate their local environment. Direct observation can provide a stimulating and rewarding experience for you and your students. Outdoor experiences in nature increase students’ problem solving abilities and motivation to learn in social studies, science, language arts, and math. Conducting classroom field investigations help students become systems thinkers, learn the skills of scientific inquiry, and understand that science doesn’t only happen in a laboratory or classroom. Learn more about field investigations and scientific inquiry with these great resources:

What do you remember best about your childhood? How can you pass that on to children today?