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Cure Kids of Nature Deficit Disorder

Posted: 09/29/11 10:06 AM ET

The kids are back in school. But for 60 students in Maple Ridge, B.C., school doesn't mean a stuffy classroom. According to an article in the Vancouver Sun, the children, ranging in age from four to 12, will get their lessons "in parks, at picnic tables, alongside streams, under tarps and tents, in gardens, libraries, restaurants, fitness centres and even municipal council chambers."

The Environmental School Project, as it is known, came about in part because a vice principal and a teacher librarian who was also studying at Simon Fraser University noticed something rather obvious: kids like getting out for field trips but don't always enjoy the classroom experience. Clayton Maitland, a school administrator who was then vice principal of a local school, and Jodi MacQuarrie, the teacher librarian, had been discussing ways to take schooling out of its rigid confines. They took their ideas to educational researchers at SFU and to the public.

People liked what the two had to say. SFU researchers got a grant from the federal government and the school was started. A council that includes the researchers, community educators, teachers, and students and their families will work with the program.

According to the school's website, the school will be based on "place and community, nature, ecology and sustainability, inquiry and possibility, interdependence and flourishing, imagination and integration." To that end, students will work on projects that include removing invasive species from natural areas and building duck shelters -- but they'll also follow the B.C. school curriculum.

It's a really great idea that I hope many more school districts will adopt. As a child, much of my education and inspiration came from outings to go camping and fishing with my dad in B.C. and later on from exploring swamps near our home in London, Ontario. My parents were never upset when I returned home soaking wet and covered in mud, carrying jars of insects and salamander eggs. That led me to an interest in science and then studies and a career in genetics, focusing on the fruit fly.

I'm happy that my children have also grown up with a love for the natural world, inspired by time spent at the beach or in the mountains, and that their children are learning the same lessons. After all, people will not care as much about, or work to protect, something with which they feel no connection. My fellow bug-lover Edward O. Wilson, an American biologist who specializes in ants, popularized the term biophilia, meaning "love of nature," with his 1984 book of the same name.

As he explains in the book, "To explore and affiliate with life is a deep and complicated process in mental development. To an extent still undervalued in philosophy and religion, our existence depends on this propensity, our spirit is woven from it, hope rises on its currents."

Of course, children also learn better and retain more of what they've learned when they enjoy the process. But too many kids today spend most of their time indoors, captivated by computers, video games, and TV. Author Richard Louv coined the term nature deficit disorder to describe this phenomenon. He notes that only six per cent of nine- to 13-year-old children in the U.S. play outside in a typical week, and in San Diego, "90 per cent of inner-city kids do not know how to swim" and "34 per cent have never been to the beach."

If we want to protect the natural world on which our survival depends, we must learn that we are a part of it, and we must encourage our children to appreciate its wonders.

Studies have also shown that spending time in nature helps with recall and memory, problem-solving, and creativity. Children (and adults) who spend more time outside are also physically healthier. And, as one of the Maple Ridge students, nine-year-old Gavin Mulcahy, told the Vancouver Sun: "We won't be locked inside a tiny box for six or seven hours a day."

These young students and the people who had the foresight to get the school running have lessons for all of us. Let's hope people heed them.

Written with contributions from David Suzuki Foundation editorial and communications specialist Ian Hanington.

Learn more at www.davidsuzuki.org.