Alabama is blessed to be a state rich in natural resources, the fifth most biodiverse state. From mountains to coastal wetlands, we have five distinct geographic regions – Piedmont Upland, Highland Rim, Cumberland Plateau, Alabama Valley and Ridge, and East Gulf Coastal Plain; 77,242 miles of rivers and streams; and about 68 percent of our land area is forested.
Even though our state has so much to offer its citizens in the area of natural resources, our citizens are becoming more and more disconnected from nature. Many of the adults reading this have fond memories of exploring the woods, fields and streams found around their childhood homes. But, for some reason, many of these same adults have stopped exploring nature and have also failed to pass on this love and understanding of the outdoors to younger generations. In many cases, they have allowed the hustle and bustle of today’s society and technology to dictate their lives and those of their children.
These observations are echoed by Richard Louv in his book "Last Child in the Woods: Saving Our Children from Nature-Deficit Disorder." Louv explores the growing trend many of us see on a daily basis of our children choosing computer games and televisions over the outdoor adventures we enjoyed while growing up. He refers to this disconnection as "nature-deficit disorder," and includes numerous examples from the thousands of children, parents and educators he interviewed during his research. One quote from a fourth-grader he encountered highlights this trend, "I like to play indoors better, ‘cause that’s where all the electrical outlets are."
In his writings, Louv links nature-deficit disorder (not a medically recognized disorder) to disturbing childhood trends such as the rise in obesity and attention deficit disorders. However, he further explains how experiences in nature can be therapeutic for these childhood maladies.
He writes, "As one scientist puts it, we can now assume that just as children need good nutrition and adequate sleep, they may very well need contact with nature."
He demonstrates how direct exposure to nature is essential for healthy childhood development as it engages children’s senses, providing solace and peace while at the same time a "wildness" that piques children’s curiosity. More specifically, he explains how utilizing our very own backyards for "environment-based" educational opportunities can dramatically improve students’ learning potential (and performance on standardized tests) while also facilitating their problem-solving, critical thinking and decision-making skills. Some schools utilizing environment-based educational programs also report improvement in their students’ social skills and decreased behavioral problems.
To help fill this need and support this "natural connection" between children and nature, the Alabama Cooperative Extension System, the Alabama Wildlife Federation and the Department of Conservation and Natural Resources have partnered to assist Alabama’s educators, interested parents, and other concerned individuals and groups by creating the Alabama Outdoor Classroom Program. The purpose of this program is to provide technical support and assistance to K-12 schools interested in developing effective and sustainable outdoor classrooms on their campuses. Through this program, educators are encouraged to teach their students about the importance of our natural resources while engaging them in learning about nature through hands-on, inquiry-based, multidisciplinary activities and projects in the outdoors whenever possible. All materials and resources used through this program have been developed to provide fact-based scientific information and insights and will help prepare future generations to be informed stewards of the environment.
Regardless of the location of the school and whether they have natural areas on the campus such as a stream and wooded area or are completely surrounded by concrete, the development of an outdoor classroom is possible. The AOC program’s staff with the assistance of partners such as local 4-H agents will help train educators to enhance the school grounds to develop outdoor learning laboratories. These outdoor classroom sites may include nature trails, aquatic studies areas, pollinator gardens, birdfeeders and nesting boxes as well as many other possibilities. Our goal is to help schools create a site that can be utilized as an education tool while also providing habitat for local wildlife. Through an outdoor classroom, students will have the opportunity to experience nature firsthand as they help develop and maintain the outdoor classroom, and as teachers utilize the site for hands-on learning opportunities.
Hopefully, by including the development of an outdoor classroom and getting children outdoors to learn, we can combat nature-deficit disorder in today’s children and create a new generation of concerned citizens who have a passion for wildlife and the outdoors, and the knowledge to help conserve it.
Doyle Keasal is an Environmental Educator and 4-H & Youth Development with the Alabama Cooperative Extension System.