Shelby SawyerDecember 14, 2017ENE 261Nature Exposure & Childhood Development The students I worked with are outstandingly intelligent. Yet, no matter how many different ways I engaged them through interactive lessons, I never felt like I was truly harnessing their power as students. They had so much energy, but their attention was directed in so many different directions at any given time. Through my interactions with them over the semester, and through reports by my classmates on their experiences with their students, I began to think about the environment for development that Lancaster provides to children. I wasn’t able to put my finger on this thought until the class lecture on childhood lead exposure in Lancaster. This lecture forced me to consider the role of environmental hazards on the development of students, and how this may affect how they behave in the classroom. The term environmental justice is often invoked in discussions of inequitable distribution of environmental burdens or hazards, especially across lines of race and socioeconomic status. Less often, however, is it discussed in-depth in terms of the distribution of environmental benefits, such as access to outdoor spaces. Even rarer is this particular environmental benefit explored through the lens of childhood development. In 2008, Richard Louv published a book titled Last Child in the Woods, in which he discussed the social, psychological, and physical health harms of the decreased exposure of children to nature in America. The book shines a powerful light on a crisis he calls “nature deficit disorder” by presenting compelling study findings and interviews. One that is often quoted is his interview with Paul, a fourth-grader from San Diego, who said he preferred playing indoors rather than outdoors “’cause that’s where all the electrical outlets are”. Today, the average American child spends roughly 4 to 7 minutes a day in unstructured play outdoors, and over 7 hours a day in front of a screen. Many who investigate this issue point to an increased fear by parents of the supposed dangers of outdoor play, but what is the proper balance of protection after all? Indeed, it is a parent’s instinct to protect their children from known dangers, but is there harm in preventing children from developing their decision-making skills for situations where danger is present? Sure, climbing a tree or building a presents a direct danger, but not developing strong decision-making and risk management skills is arguably more dangerous in the long-run. Of course, children can learn these skills through other avenues, but I think many of these result in learned skills that can be likened to book smartness rather than street smartness— and there is a significant difference there. Along the same lines, children who live in urban environments, such as Lancaster, rarely have access to unplanned landscapes. This can limit their opportunities for development. For example, when a child plays with a toy, perhaps a model truck or doll, by design, the toy has a limited number of intended uses and applications. However, natural environments present children with endless ways to interact, use, and combine their surroundings and the many elements of their direct environment. For this reason, unstructured play in nature promotes creativity and imagination, and is arguably much more deeply stimulating to children by challenging them to determine these interactions and uses. Furthermore, self-confidence is encouraged through granting them the power to determine these for themselves. Clear linkages have been established between contact with green space and children’s self-esteem and sense of self. For example, one study found that children had an increased sense of personal autonomy, a greater capacity for taking action and being decisive, and improved interpersonal skills after participating in wilderness challenge programs.Aside from the social, physical, and cognitive benefits of time spent outside, there are larger considerations to take into account as well. After all, children grow up to be adults, and the skills and values of the adult population can powerfully shape how our society works and makes decisions. This has far-reaching implications for current and future generations. Studies show that outdoor experiences are directly linked to child’s proclivity towards environmental stewardship,. If children feel disconnected from the natural world and do not see themselves as stewards of the environment, they will likely grow into adults, and importantly, voters, who carry that sentiment. I fear that our natural heritage and access to places of high environmental quality could be in deep trouble because of this. Upon deeper thought, our connection to nature really does infiltrate every facet of how we move through the world, right down to what we decide to put on our plate. This issue is something that needs to be addressed, but the question of where and how remains unasked for many, and elusive for those who ask it. It is clear that contact with nature builds skills that children bring to the classroom, but what does that mean for urban classrooms? What can they provide to fill this gap? Sure, there are a growing number of schools that specialize in outdoor experiences, but those are by no means an option for the vast majority of families in America. Therefore, a change in the methods and degree by which nature is brought into urban classrooms is plainly necessary. Is it possible to fabricate some of the opportunities that natural spaces present to students, but within the walls of a classroom? For experiences that are not, are there opportunities for getting kids outside, even in school districts characterized by overwhelmingly urban landscapes?Everything considered, including constraints on time and funding that are faced by many urban school districts, it seems that truly any effort to increase student-nature contact in urban classrooms can only be beneficial. Teachers can bring plants and animals into the classroom, even if it is not part of the curriculum, and inspire students’ curiosity about their own backyards. Although the local park may not be considered a wilderness, it stands to offer children many of the same developmental benefits. They can connect students with online resources and guides, such as those provided on the National Audubon Society’s website, which show how to make urban settings friendly for wildlife. Schools can also provide books on nature-related topics to inspire student curiosity, wonder, and educational growth. There is a growing collection of programs that seek to connect urban students with wilderness experiences at no cost or even for pay, such as the Leaders in Environmental Action for the Future program offered through The Nature Conservancy, the Wildlife Explorers program through the National Recreation and Park Association, and the Wilderness Inquiry and the Canoemobile programs through the National Park Service. Effort on behalf of teachers to connect their students with programs such as these would provide urban students with experiences that are critically important to their development, and ultimately, affect their behavior and ability in the classroom. The ever-growing body of literature that links children’s access to nature with cognitive, emotional, and physical benefits is impossible to ignore. The benefits that stand to be gained, including reduced stress and aggression levels, increased ability to concentrate, improved academic performance, and reduced risk of obesity, could help mitigate many of the behavioral problems that can impede learning in today’s classrooms,,. These aspects of student behavior manifest directly in the classroom, and therefore, teachers have a vested role in connecting students with opportunities that allow them to reap the benefits of exposure to nature. This requires direct, meaningful action on behalf of educators, school districts, parents, and others. Only then will urban students truly experience the benefits of nature.