Guest column: Let's open the door for student success

By Andy Buchsbaum/National Wildlife Federation

In Michigan, several disturbing trends have become the core of the public education conversation. We hear about failing schools, underperforming students and teachers, budgets and staff stretched to capacity (and sometimes beyond), and disconcerting dropout rates. But there’s something else that hasn’t registered yet – and it should.

We are experiencing an unrecognized epidemic that is harming our children and their academic success, even as it puts our collective future in jeopardy -- and we’re not talking about it..

What is it? The indoor childhood. These days, the syndrome defines most children’s daily life.

Gone are the days of kids spending their free time outdoors (often from dawn to dusk). Outdoor "green time" has largely been replaced with indoor "tech time." Kids rarely walk to school, and changes to family life, schedules and perceptions of the outdoors and safety have dramatically increased adults’ inclination to keep kids inside.

Today, the average American child:

* Spends more than 7.5 hours per day engaged in electronic media (TV, digital games, cell phones and computers) versus only four minutes per day in unstructured outdoor play.

* Can name 1,000 corporate logos, but can’t identify 10 things in their own back yard (according to "The Ecology of Commerce" by Paul Hawken).

The results of kids’ indoor, sedentary lifestyle are record rates of obesity and diabetes, as well as increasing rates of attention deficit disorder and depression – all of which make it more difficult to succeed now in school and in the long term as adults. Kids are not only becoming less healthy and happy, but they are losing the formative outdoor experiences that create an abiding affection for nature and wildlife that lead them to become the conservation stewards that Michigan needs.

But take heart. We can reverse this success-stunting indoor childhood trend, while propelling Michigan schools to be national models, rather than examples of decline.

First, we must change the focus of the education conversation from one of problems to one of possibilities. If Michigan’s public education needs to be reformed, let’s really reform it.

If the well-being of kids and our conservation future demand kids get outside, let’s open the door. If we want to cultivate engaged students, let’s do that, too. Yes, it will be a challenge, but it is infinitely possible – and without breaking the bank. It’s possible, that is, if we are willing to chart a new course.

Part of that new course must be flipping the current balance of indoor-outdoor time during the school day on its head. For too many kids in the Great Lakes State, school is exclusively an indoor experience, and they suffer for it. Research shows that school programs that get kids outside (school gardens and habitats, daily outdoor recess) have proven to better engage students, reduce dropout rates and improve test scores.

Using the schoolyard, community and landscape as the classroom -- a learning model called place-based education -- is another vital step we must take. Studies (and practical application) show that engagement in learning is heightened through place-based education, as is achievement, natural resource conservation and citizenship.

Reaping the rewards of place-based education requires teachers and administrators who are equipped, trained, supported and comfortable in implementing place-based education best practices. Therefore ongoing professional development in those best practices is essential.

Stopping the spread of the indoor childhood epidemic is critical. We need our institutions to respond. Particularly, we need our school system to be part of the solution and not the problem. We have a unique opportunity in Michigan right now to change the indoor childhood trend. State government is considering new investments and policies for Michigan schools – changes that could help schools get kids outside.

If we invest in reversing the indoor childhood epidemic in and out of school the dividends will be the engaged, successful students and schools Michigan deserves.

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Tue, 10/02/2012 - 4:48pm
This would be remarkably easy to do. We've got such great outdoor spaces that would accommodate and even welcome kids -- Matthaei Botanical Gardens, Cranbrook, Belle Isle, Farmington's Heritage woodlands, on and on. I can't imagine transportation would be a major hurdle; probably it's mostly initiative. Many schools have enough property to make their own hedgerows and mini-woodlands. I was lucky enough to grow up in the middle of hundreds of acres of woods and fields, and the stars were a major show every night. Most kids today never see more than a few stars; most play seems to be structured, with mom and dad in attendance. Of course, how many modern subdivisions have woodlands attached? Even the yards of most tract homes built in the past 25 years are too tiny even for a couple of trees. How can children be expected to care about the natural world if they never experience it? Mr. Buchsbaum has a point, but I wonder if we haven't passed the point at which something like this could attract enough support. We may in fact already be too intoxicated by techtime and so hemmed in by a lack of wild places that too few people care.