A Winter With No Picture

It’s strange to realize how I feel ‘blank’ when I have no picture to reflect on and write about… This was a different winter with me and my child being indoor for hours and hours … being cold and disengaged when outdoors and feeling there was not much to photograph when everything seemed grey and cold. I’m searching all my computer files to find a picture to write about Rauz’s engagement with nature in the last 6 months and have to confess there isn’t any, or there’s any that can inspire me to write a post on. So, I’m pushing myself to think and write without a picture or to write about a winter with no picture …

My undergrad students had to develop an outdoor curriculum experience for young children (0-5 years old) in their field placement over the past winter semester. Less than a month into the course, they started complaining that the kids were not spending time outside at all and so how they could have observed them outside and developed a curriculum plan based on children’s interests. And even if they had planned for an outdoor curriculum, there would have been hardly any day during the week that children would go outside to experience it … the reason being that the weather was too cold for too many days. So I adjusted and adjusted and finally gave up on the idea of creating an outdoor experience . And by the time that we got into April, and it was still cold, it hit all of us that this is serious. We need to seriously think about the consequences of the ‘cold/bad weather’ on the physical and psychological health and well being of our young children in our city, and perhaps in many other cold cities in our country.
Are we, human beings, becoming more vulnerable losing our capabilities to tolerate the coldness of our climate? Or are our indoors becoming too comfortable making our outdoors significantly irrelevant, ‘unreachable’, un-livable? I’m thinking about our big SUVs, big couches, big TV screens, big coffee mugs, and small bungalows turning into big triple-door garage houses with small to none back yards but big basements for entertainment centers and games.

Let’s get back to our young citizens in childcare centers and schools, where many of them spend about 6-9 hours a day, five days a week, often year around. We need to question the environments that we have created for them and the kinds of connection with the natural environments that we’re defining for them. The restorative power of time outside and the impact of green space on children’s emotional well being are currently being extensively examined. But put this aside, for children aged 0-5 physical development is significantly important. It is a shocking reality that many of these centers don’t even have a gym or any big indoor room where children can at least get opportunities to develop their gross motor skills crawling, walking, running, climbing, pulling, or throwing. I don’t need research findings to be alarmed. The experience of 20 field students in 20 different centers is enough for me to draw the result that this is not ok … lack of outdoor time (even in asphalt and fenced playgrounds) cannot be overlooked … it is serious. I add to the data from my students my own professional experience of working with young children for many years at different capacities, and my personal experience raising a child and talking to many parents of young children. Our experiences are not unusual. And let’s face the reality that it can be cold for many many months in Canada and then it can be very hot and humid with high UV index for some other months.

Answers? Humans were always outdoors regardless of the harsh weather. We had caves but we didn’t hibernate, we were strong to tolerate the heat and the chill. While for our survival needs to be need to constantly develop new skills, it is not wise to lose those that we already have and are so valuable. If the kind of life in the movie Wall E is not the future that we wish for our children, then we need to question our practices if we’re taking that path to the future: To pollute our outdoor environments, to create too much fear and anxiety towards any exposure to the natural environments and the outdoors, to make such a connection irrelevant and meaningless and then to fully channel our interactions through devices, while becoming too obsessed with control and risk-free life styles where not humans but corporations and insurance companies are making our choices.

Our indoorized and sedentary lives …

I’m free from the ‘mandated writing’ of a phd dissertation and back to the world of free voluntary writing of blogs …

It’s a beautiful Thursday morning, March 08, 2012. Foggy as my daughter described it in the morning, about 16 degrees C., which is very warm for Toronto. It rained a little bit but stopped and feels very fresh … we admit that the color of trees are changing and birds sound happy when Rauz and I left home this morning … you feel the change of the season … nature is getting ready for spring here in Toronto and it is a lot of work. We may notice what’s happening on the ground but missing so many other growth which is hidden from us, under the dirt, way inside the bushes, up on the tall trees, down in the waters, and high in the skies … we get to see just so little, (not considering the images on the screens that in some ways can take us to those hidden spaces too) …

Where is our place within all these changes that are happening at our home? Do we feel we are a part of it too? Is the season changing for us too?  What do we need to do to prepare ourselves for the spring and how can we do it? Or is today the same as yesterday and tomorrow for many of us? Have we limited our role to an ‘observer’? We used to fall in love, play outdoors, clean our homes, feel happy and fresh in spring …. we used to work harder and longer to make the soil ready to grow our food, we became busier taking care of the spring baby animals … We used to dance in harmony with the nature …

I dropped my daughter in her kindergarten classroom at 8:45 a.m this morning. The ‘fear’ of rain kept 24 kids and three teachers inside, they were sitting on the carpet for ‘the circle time.’  For them, today is the same day as yesterday, I’m afraid tomorrow won’t be very different. They’ll be inside, indoored, for 6 hours in school. That is the best part of the day, 9 to 3, when they are full of energy and thoughts and dreams … But they must learn to control them, hide them, and conform to our indoorized school system. they must learn to focus only on a small part of their brain, to ‘enhance’ and maximize its capacity … that’s what’s most matter today and tomorrow … it doesn’t change with the seasons … we are not dancing with nature any more …. we’ve positioned ourselves above it …  climate, natural light, wind, rain, high and low tides, the rotation of our Earth don’t really matter  much … Or do they?

I cannot accept this sedentary life that many of our children are experiencing today.  Should we reconsider the schools’ budget for various supplies,  smart boards, computers, paper work, big shows, and workshops? Can we seek some portion of it for creating spaces for our children to be outdoors in any weather condition? Should this be on the list of our ‘priorities” along with books, writing materials, desks and chairs, and computers? Can we be creative building gazebos for kids to work and play in rain? Can we provide boots,rain coats, winter jackets, and mittens for those kids who don’t come to school ready for the weather condition? We are providing along list of  notebooks, pen and pencils, posters, newsletters, breakfast,and many more, all for free? I am not suggesting any of these items are less important, but I am thinking that this list is missing a few very critical items. It is not enough to ‘tell’ our children that being active, being playful, and eating healthy are  important then allocate a fraction of their time and our supply to actually supporting them to be active, playful, and eat healthy in schools?

Think about children’s 4 and 5 digits calorie diet  in the rich countries and their sedentary life style … and ask yourself, what is the real risk to their health and well-being and what can we, as parents, educators, and citizens, do about it?

Inviting nature to our classrooms

Classrooms for young children, for example preschools or kindergartens, are often organized into ‘learning centers’ where children can explore arts, science, building blocks, writing, drama, and etc. Here is a picture of a science learning center in a kindergarten classroom for children ages 4 to 6. Natural materials, plants, manipulatives, books, and various tools are inviting children to pause, explore, ask questions, seek answers, and discover.

But, 20 kindergarteners responded differently to this center. None of the children became deeply interested in spending time in this center and engaging with the materials.  Hmm, strange.  What’s missing? What can be changed?

Perhaps the materials are representing nature out of its context; the table is blocking the children’s access to the plants and the window; the center doesn’t seem to offer many open-ended opportunities to explore scientific concepts…

But there is a big window facing a grass hill, a tall pine tree, and the neighborhood streets … a window to the world outside the walls of the classroom, a bridge to the real world … to observe and wonder … about the birds, the squirrels, the pine tree … and the people and the car traffic.

What if we move the table away from the window to give children an access to the window … but the window is high and the children are not at the same height as adults … they need something to climb up to better  see the outside … Is it okay to put a bench under the window for them to climb up? Let’s take the risk.

A bench and an open window was all the children needed to get motivated to come to the ‘science learning center’, spend time there, bring  binoculars to spy on squirrels, take photos, draw pictures on the window sill, feed the birds, and get engaged with the natural world … not for a day or two, but for the rest of the school year.

 At this new design of the science learning center, Nature is located in its context; it’s real: fresh air, cool breeze, wind, rain drops on the window, flying birds and busy squirrel, and many more. Plus the people, the cars, the children’s homes across from the street, and the neighbors.

Sometimes, a simple change can make a big difference in getting children’s attention. Let’s think outside of the box when we imagine the nature in the big cities.