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Extension > Youth Development Insight > April 2013

Wednesday, April 24, 2013

Turning the tide: Reconnecting kids to nature

Cathy-Jordan.jpgToday's youth are the first generation to be more connected to electronic devices than to the outdoors and the natural world. As adults, today's young people will likely identify as indoor types rather than outdoor types.

One of my passions is connecting children and youth to nature. When I speak to adult groups about this topic I often ask the audience to think of a favorite memory from childhood. I then ask for a show of hands. "Raise your hand if your memory involved the natural world." A huge majority raises their hands. But if I were to ask the youth of today that question 20 or 30 years from now, they would be much less likely to think of a memory involving nature.

As we only protect what we know and love, this generation will grow up to be less likely to value our natural resources and to engage in preservation and conservation. Their disconnection from nature will lead to future generations that are at least as disconnected, unless we intervene, and intervene now.

There are also lots of developmental reasons to learning-in-nature.jpgreconnect youth to nature.
  1. Nature-based play and recreation in groups encourages the development of social skills: Pro-social behaviors and quality of social interactions increase when children spend time in nature (Burdette 2005; Cottrell 2010).
  2. Access to nature improves concentration and attention: Youth who have access to green spaces, or simply more natural views from their windows, are better able to concentrate. Those with ADHD demonstrate fewer symptoms after a walk in nature or time to play in nature (Faber Taylor 2011; Kuo 2004; Wells 2000).

  3. Nature boosts achievement: Students achieve at higher levels (e.g. on reading, math and language tests) when they receive instruction that uses the environment as a context for learning (Matsouka 2008; Lieberman 1998).
  4. Nature-based activity promotes fitness and health: From increasing physical activity levels for the prevention of obesity, to decreasing asthma symptoms, to easing the symptoms of depression and anxiety, to improving nearsightedness, outdoor activity is good for youth's physical and mental health and well-being (McCurdy 2010; Kimbro 2011; Cooper 2010; Brown 2009; Rose 2008).
  5. Nature-based play and recreation improve physical abilities and coordination: Youth who play, run and climb among trees and rocks and who move over uneven ground develop stronger skills in motor coordination, balance and agility than those who play on flatter terrain, or inside (Fjοrtoft, 2004)
  6. Nature play = creative play: Play in natural settings is more varied, elaborate and creative (Burdette 2005).
  7. Time in nature busts stress and improves emotional health: Youth are more calm and happy and demonstrate more resilience the more they are exposed to green spaces and natural environments (Bowler 2010; Wells 2003).

An important distinction to keep in mind is the difference between nature-based activities and other activities that might take place outdoors, such as sports practices or games. Although sports participation has many benefits, some of which overlap with nature-based activities (such as fitness and health), such activities will not produce the same benefits as nature play.
Connecting our young people to nature is a win for youth and a win for nature. It enhances youths' development in multiple domains as well as increases the likelihood that they will come to love the natural world and take action to protect it.
How does your work connect youth to nature? What benefits have you observed as a result? What challenges have you faced? What do you need to be able to more effectively connect youth to nature?

-- Cathy Jordan, director and associate professor
University of Minnesota Extension's Children, Youth, and Family Consortium

You are welcome to comment on this blog post. We encourage civil discourse, including spirited disagreement. We will delete comments that contain profanity, pornography or hate speech--any remarks that attack or demean people because of their sex, race, ethnic group, etc.--as well as spam.

Wednesday, April 17, 2013

Keeping scientific curiosity alive beyond the early years

Rebecca-Meyer.jpgThrough play, children are natural scientists, but few adults carry that playful curiosity and investigation into adulthood. This is pretty well documented. The scientist Carl Sagan said, "Every kid starts out a natural-born scientist, and then we beat it out of them. A few trickle through the system with their wonder and enthusiasm for science intact."

I've long had a vague feeling that a connection exists between my seemingly disparate work on nature play, environmental education, science and engineering. My struggle has been to make a cohesive theory from them. I had a moment of clarity as I stumbled into the idea that "messing about in the outdoors" is in essence a foundation for motivating interest and skill in engineering design and science inquiry. I realized that childhood play involves self-made, intrinsically motivated activities that sow the seeds for science inquiry.

Wolfe, Cummins, & Myers point out the importance of youth-directed play in sparking scientific inquiry. In my own research on the value of natural play spaces, I have documented how certain nature elements - a tumbling stream, woodlot, or sandbox - can spark individual curiosity and social, inventive play.

In a recent interview, self-proclaimed "science youth-curiosity.jpgevangelist" Ainissa Ramirez said: "There are few opportunities for kids to explore something inspired by their curiosity, and few chances to get their hands dirty ... STEM is like a training camp for key skills like encouraging curiosity and patience, and making friends with failure."

We as educators need to find ways to keep curiosity alive beyond the early years. To do that, we need to make sure that the strategies we implement are engaging, relevant, and, maybe most important, fun.

One strategy I have found successful is focusing on engineering design. Youth are provided a challenge and as a team devise a solution. It involves teamwork, communication, problem solving and a host of additional life skills important to supporting the "Five C's" of positive youth development. In another blog post, I wrote about free play and the 4 key principles I believe necessary for encouraging positive interactions in natural spaces.

I am going to keep working to expand the number of youth who "trickle through the system with their wonder and enthusiasm for science intact." My next challenge is to weave my ideas around free play, nature, and engineering design into a program design that can continue to support childhood wonder and curiosity through adolescence into adulthood.

I've seen a few programs that infuse play into nature, and play into science or engineering, but I'm not sure I've seen a program that intentionally involves youth, free play in nature to spark science inquiry or engineering design. Does this resonate with you? Have you experienced a program like I describe? Or, can you imagine how this could work in a program?

-- Rebecca Meyer, Extension educator, educational design & development

You are welcome to comment on this blog post. We encourage civil discourse, including spirited disagreement. We will delete comments that contain profanity, pornography or hate speech--any remarks that attack or demean people because of their sex, race, ethnic group, etc.--as well as spam.

Wednesday, April 10, 2013

EQ as a basis for academic and career success

Margo-Herman.jpgHow are we preparing our youth in terms of social and emotional growth?

Daniel Goleman, one of the emotional intelligence gurus of our day, calls this educating the whole student by "bringing together mind and heart". Goleman speaks about the journey of bringing intelligence to emotion and keeping distressing emotions in check.

test.jpgEmotional intelligence is:
  • Being self aware
  • Being socially aware
  • Being able to manage feelings
  • Having empathy for and awareness of others
  • Being able to bring this awareness into relationship skills, as illustrated by Jean Hammink's emotional intelligence model
These are life skills for all people, young and old. But how do youth workers go about intentionally nurturing these competencies?

I learned more about this recently when I attended the Building a Grad Nation Summit 2013 in Washington D.C., put on by America's Promise Alliance. The summit focused on the potential we have to impact the achievement gap in education. My favorite break-out session was "Nurturing Social and Emotional Growth" in which the speakers discussed the realities, latest research, and compelling examples of how families and communities are strengthening social and emotional skills as an essential part of every child's education. The session included a rich interchange about how the school day blends with out-of-school time as well as family life to best support youth. I walked away very encouraged.

The National Human Services Assembly recently issued a report called "Keeping Kids On Track In The Middle School Years". On page 5, a model describes how youth development programming connects to promoting educational success for school achievement. The model proposes that youth workers who improve the quality of youth development programming help strengthen the psychological, social/emotional, as well as academic and career development domains of middle school students, who then enter high school better prepared to succeed.

I particularly homed in on the specific list of social and cognitive development skills included in the model. I find this recognition about the importance of all these domains contributing to educational success an important focus for youth development programs.

Is social emotional intelligence on your radar in your youth programming? In what specific ways do you see youth workers nurturing these skills in youth?

Margo Herman, Extension educator, educational design and development

You are welcome to comment on this blog post. We encourage civil discourse, including spirited disagreement. We will delete comments that contain profanity, pornography or hate speech--any remarks that attack or demean people because of their sex, race, ethnic group, etc.--as well as spam.

Wednesday, April 3, 2013

Warning: Inquiry-based learning requires facilitators who know the answers

Hui-Hui-Wang.jpgRecently, I delivered a 30 minute presentation about experiential learning for new program staff. Naturally, I set up an intriguing hands-on, inquiry-based activity for the new staff members to experience this kind of learning for themselves.

One of the critical concepts embedded in experiential learning is inquiry. To do inquiry-based learning, an instructor presents a scenario or problem, then guides learners to identify questions and delve into them to develop their knowledge.


experiential-learning.jpgAs they did the activity, I guided the new staff members to develop their knowledge and solutions without telling them the answers or what to do. They were really frustrated and asked me why didn't I just give them the answers. Eventually, one of them said, "See, this is how easy it is to be an instructor when you do experiential learning. You don't need to know the answer. You just keep asking people to find out the answer themselves."

This type of comment was not new to me, but I was shocked because this time, it came from a staff member. Of course she is new, but she had a huge misconception about inquiry-based experiential learning. To do it, an instructor needs not only to have solid and comprehensive content knowledge about the activity, she must skillfully lead learners to help them develop their own knowledge.

The comment was a red flag for me. We urgently need professional development to help 4-H staff fully understand, design and lead inquiry-based experiential learning activities. If 4-H staff believe that they can successfully do that by throwing out a bunch of open-ended questions and asking learners to find out the answers themselves, can you imagine what the quality of our 4-H educational programs will be?

I know that it takes more than a 30-minute "taster" activity to learn how to design and facilitate an inquiry-based experiential learning program. I also know that the opinion of that new staff member is not unique. To me, this is a sharp warning that we need to consider seriously! What do you think?

-- Hui-Hui Wang, assistant professor and Extension educator, STEM education

You are welcome to comment on this blog post. We encourage civil discourse, including spirited disagreement. We will delete comments that contain profanity, pornography or hate speech--any remarks that attack or demean people because of their sex, race, ethnic group, etc.--as well as spam.
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