“Mommy do you have gym today?”

 “Mommy do you have gym (lesson) today?” This is the question my 6 years old daughter asked me this morning when we were leaving home for school and work in the morning. I was putting on my highheels and she was wearing her running shoes. She had gym lesson and I had to teach my “managing project” course. She was wishing to be able to wear high heel shoes and I was the one who actually could do that.

I responded, “No mommy. I teach today”.

Rauz added with a big surprise, “You mean you have to work at your desk all day?” Now that she’s in Grade 1, she knows better what working at desk all day means.

So I explained, “Yes mommy but I go outside for fresh air.” which often is not true. The only time that I leave the building is when I walk to my car which is for about 3 minutes!

Rauz looked at me and quickly but surely said, “That’s why I don’t want to grow up!” I felt as if I had to say something to defend the grownups, “But you can’t help it. You’re going to grow up.”

She was smart and had the answer ready, “But if I don’t eat food, I won’t grow!” I have a quick answer too! With a tone as if I knew everything in the world, I said, “Even if you don’t eat food, you still gonna grow.” and we left home.

For the rest of the day I felt sad that my life is so indoorized these days. I had to look at some summer photos to remind myself of “good old days” and plan for them to be “good new days.”

So I take her wisdom that if growing means you need to “work at a desk all day”, even in fancy highheels, then it’d better to stay a child forever. Nothing really worth the trade, for running, rolling, jumping, and going up and down the slides. I hope Rauz keeps this feeling and perspective. And I’ll go for a walk tomorrow, with my college students. 


National Trust calls for action on children and nature

Another wonderful posting by my favorite thinker, Tim Gill.

It is so assuring to read about the growing movement and awareness  in Britain. I’m excited to learn about the ambitions and dreams of educators, experts, and policy makers who have an influential role in designing the 21st century childhood as I’m talking to faculty members, students, colleagues, and families about my dissertation study and my personal and professional connection to nature these days in job talks, my doctoral defence, and informal chats.

Check the link. National Trust calls for action on children and nature.

I will write more after I finish with all these  official talks …

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.

Indoors, Outdoors, and the Sedentary Life of our Young Children

Every morning when I drop off my 5 and half years old daughter at school, I ask myself how much of her time will be indoors and how much she has to sit on that day. She is in school for 6 hours a day five days a week, and I know other young children who spend as much as 10 hours a day in school/day care (before/after school programs) everyday. And in my city, it is not unusual to spend all that time indoors! This breaks my heart. I am scared to even think about how the day passes for these kids and their teachers being indoors for so long and in a class of 20 to 30 children.

Why is this happening? Many reasons and there’s no shortage of finding new ones: the too cold or too hot weather, the icy condition of the playground in winter, the heat alert in summer , the lack of time, the bored children and teachers when outside, the risk of physical injury, the challenge of ‘supervising’ children outdoors, and the many other important things that need to happen and so kids have to rush inside, …

My daughter’s case,  her school, and my city are not exceptional. I wish they were. This is probably happening in many other schools and cities too. Here’s one broad research of 450 children, ages 3-5, from 24 preschools in a metropolitan area of South Carolina, US. They found:

• Children are largely indoors and sedentary at preschool: 87% of researchers’ observations of children occurred inside and during this inside time, 94% of children’s total physical activity intervals were sedentary.
• Children were largely sedentary outdoors, but displayed higher levels of physical activity outside than inside: 17% of children’s total physical activity intervals were moderate to vigorous and 56% were sedentary.
• Adults initiated the majority of children’s activities. Children engaged in more high-level physical activity when activities were child-initiated
instead of adult-initiated.
• Many teachers did not encourage or participate in children’s physical activities during outdoor play

[Reference: Brown, W. H., Pfeiffer, K. A., McIver, K. L., Dowda, M., Addy, C. L., & Pate, R. R. (2009). Social and Environmental Factors Associated With Preschoolers’ Nonsedentary Physical Activity. Child Development, 80(1), 45-58. This study may be available in a library near you or can be purchased online through the publisher at: http://www.wiley.com/%5D

The findings of this research, in my opinion, are alarming considering the crucial value of physical activities and outdoor time in children’s physical, emotional, spiritual, psychological, and  intellectual health.

One may argue that after all, school is just a part of these children’s time. What about when they are not in school or daycare? What may we learn if we do a mini- study about these children’s outside school experiences? What does happen when parents pick up their children at the end of their day in school? How much more seating and indoorization is involved for the rest of their time?  Are they seated in a car to go home? Or do they walk or bike home? Do they need to sit to finish their home works or school projects? Or do they play in a park after school? How much time do they spend watching TV, surfing the internet, playing video games, reading books, eating, and etc when at home? Let’s ask ourselves, on average, in a day, how much of our children’s time is spending indoors or outdoors and what do they do when outdoors or indoors? Is anybody interested to share?

I can think about yesterday: holiday time, no school, and everybody was off from work. It was a mild winter day, about 7 degrees Celsius. My daughter spent one hour and a half outdoors ice skating and snow playing, and the rest was indoors/at home!  When at home, her friend and she danced for one hour, played with their toys or draw for about another 5 hours. They also watched two movies for about 3 hours in total. That is: they spent just about %6 of their day outdoors and %12 of their day doing physical activity. Hmm, and I thought I have an active life style!

Do you think we need to become more aware of and bring to the public attention the sedentary and indoor life that our children (and we) live today? Do we, parents, teachers, and the wider community, need to resist it and question the reasons we’ve been given or making to stay indoors and often physically inactive?  Where are our  priorities and where they need to be on each and everyday of our precious life?