Many of us are aware of the need to create open spaces for gathering or playing in cities, or on school grounds. My kids love playgrounds, and I love lying on a patch of open green grass. However, neither monkey bars nor picnic blankets on a groomed field match the experience one can have in a wild, diverse forest. In addition to the importance of biodiversity provided by wild ecosystems, researchers are increasingly pointing our attention toward the importance for both adults and children to connect with nature every day, for the sake of their mental and physical health.
One of the best known proponents of this view is Richard Louv, a journalist who made quite an impact with his book, Last Child in the Woods in 2008. Louv suggested that children can suffer from “nature deficit disorder” and that direct exposure to nature is essential for the physical and emotional health of children and adults. If you are interested in reading beyond Louv on this subject, there’s a wealth of scholarly and more general literature available. The Children and Nature Network provides links to a wealth of recent research on this topic. The writings of David Orr may also be of interest, and the Canadian Journal of Environmental Education is also an excellent resource for further information.
Despite the increasing recognition of the importance of wild spaces to human health, most city parks and school playgrounds I see are dominated by treeless playing fields and government approved playground equipment. This, to me, presents an excellent opportunity for community members – and particularly schools – to take action and get involved.
Here are three ways that people are taking the lead in ensuring that we maintain our connection with the natural environment in urban settings.
- Cities and forests
A good example of a project focused on urban forests is the Cities for Forests led by the World Wildlife Fund (India). The project seeks to raise public awareness about the intrinsic link between forests and human well-being, especially amongst the youth of India. At a more municipal level, the City of Toronto runs an ongoing program of public education around the value of urban forests. Similarly, the Habitat Acquisition Trust (HAT) in the City of Victoria has worked with the municipality to map urban forests, and inform the public about their value.
- Integrating the outdoors into the school day
HAT has also engaged in a program to create outdoor, nature-based classrooms called Green Spots. This project represents an increasing trend in public and private educational institutions to encourage learning in outdoor environments. Often, schools will integrate nature based learning as one component of the larger curriculum. For example, students in the public Vancouver School Board have the option of applying to the TREK Program. During this year-long program, students spend 5 months “on-TREK” where they are involved in a combination of outdoor activities, field studies, and classroom-based academics, and 5 months “off-TREK” where they will complete an intensified academic curriculum. There a number of similar programs in the United States as well, including Tahoma High’s Outdoor Academy and an Outdoor Academy in North Carolina.
- Making the outdoors the school day
The previous examples focus largely on integrating natural spaces with existing school frameworks, and encouraging students to spend only part of their day – or part of their year – outdoors. In contrast, there is another movement to encourage children to spend the majority of their educational time outdoors. In essence, this approach places the entire classroom in the wild: the forest is not out of bounds, but is instead where the heart of daily learning and living takes place. “Nature Kindergarten” and “Forest Preschools” are based on this philosophy. While established in Europe, this educational model is steadily gaining ground in North America. For more information, you should check out the newly launched Nature Kindergarten started by Sooke School District on Vancouver Island. Another example from British Columbia is the Maple Ridge Environmental School Project, where kindergarten to grade 7 students spend their entire day learning in a local park . Finally, a great general resource is the Forest Schools website from the UK .
As always, this is just the tip of iceberg! Please share more examples of cities and schools putting wild spaces first.