Are we subjugating our children to too much time indoors? A growing number of American schools advocate going beyond cement walls and into the outdoors. Consider it the antidote to a screen-addicted generation, a crisis that even bears its own clinical diagnosis: nature deficit disorder.
A recent piece in The Atlantic profiles the rise in “nature preschools,” also referred to as “forest kindergartens,” which have begun sprouting up across the country. In these outdoor schools, children roam acres of woodlands and wetlands and go on “expeditions” that foster creativity and teamwork. In fact, the Natural Start Alliance, a group advocating for more nature contact in early education, estimates that this trend has grown at least 500% since 2012.
These schools still offer the required elements of math and reading, but instructors want to shift education to foster independence, physical interaction, and unstructured play–all things, advocates argue, learned in the woods.
As the author explains: “They learn creativity as they explore and engage with complex ecological systems—and imagine new worlds of their own. Freed from playground guardrails that constrain (even as they protect), kids build strength, develop self-confidence, and learn to manage risks as they trip, stumble, fall, hurt, and right themselves.”
Several studies attest to nature’s positive effects on children. Time spent outdoors has been shown to calm aggression, cultivate self-esteem, ease anxiety, and reduce stress. Of course, it also improves overall physical fitness. Currently, the average American child spends only four to seven minutes a day in unstructured play outdoors, compared to over seven hours a day in front of a screen, reports The Child Mind Institute.
Outdoor schools are mostly relegated to more affluent communities, with the majority of them private. Administrators hope that, as the trend grows, it will trickle down to lower-income communities, which traditionally have the least amount of exposure to nature. Perhaps, as popularity grows and more research is conducted, it might even attract public funding.