Monday, January 19, 2009

Neurological Underpinnings of Belvedere Part 2

As I have written before, it was the idea that I could help build a community while staying connected to nature that attracted me to Belvedere. Actually, it was good marketing on the part of Stonehaus: Green views, getting children "off the couch" and outside. Very specifically, it was Bob Hauser who told me that he wanted to build a neighborhood where the children would have a childhood like he remembered his was. He explained to me that he had children and was deeply inspired by them. Led by this inspiration, and troubled by what he saw children doing these days, he decided to try and design a neighborhood where children could play outside in nature, unstructured and untroubled by adult concerns. "Yes," I said inside my heart, "I have been working these past seven years to create that with programs for children. Here is a place I could call home."

I have traveled and lectured to parents, communities, teachers, about the benefits of play on nature. Here is a short list. The list grows incredibly now, with advocates in the Child in Nature Network, and the No Child Left Inside Coalition whose chant is "Get 'Em Outside."

  • 200 years ago, most children grew up in areas surrounded by nature.
  • Late 20th century, children’s environments became more urbanized.
  • With the turn of the century, outdoor play boundaries have shrunk, and so has access to nature.
  • Many children live in urban areas where natural areas for play have shrunk; ½ live in urban centers of less than 500,000
  • Decline in recess continues, despite research showing that unstructured play outside promotes learning while releasing energy and stress and minimizing disruptive behaviors.
  • Rise in ADD/ADHD by tracking the amount of medications taken, up 700% since 1990.Approximately 4.7% of children 6–17 years of age have ADHD without LD, (14.5 million children, source CDC)
Research Summary:Some Specific Research:

Robin Moore of the Natural Learning Initiative at NC State University in Raleigh, NC has complete research showing that play in nature:
  • encourages imagination and creativity,
  • fosters language and collaborative skills,
  • reduces or eliminates bullying,
  • stimulates social interaction between children, and
  • children who play in nature have more positive feelings about each other
Play and learning in natural settings stimulates all aspects and stages of child development.

Andrea Faber Taylor and Francis of the Landscape and Human Health Laboratory at the University of Illinois completed several studies on the impact of nature on a child’s ability to be
more disciplined, delay gratification, and control impulses. Results showed that contact with nature:

  • increases ability to focus and concentrate, and
  • that views of and contact with nature result in higher scores on tests of concentration and self-discipline.
  • The greener the setting surrounding the child, the better the scores.
  • A recent study completed in 2004 showed that simply taking a walk in nature decreased symptoms of ADHD.
  • Levels of aggression and violence were significantly lower among inner city residents who had some nearby nature outside their apartments.
A Swedish study completed in 2001 showed that play in nature increases motor fitness, including coordination, balance and agility; children who play in nature are sick less often even though they went outside in all weather, every day.

Robert Pyle studied children’s play in vacant lots in urban areas. Exposure to natural environments improves children’s cognitive development by improving their awareness, reasoning, and observational skills.

Social scientist Nancy Wells’ study on working with nature and inner city children found that nature buffers the impact of life’s stresses on children and helps them deal with adversity; the greater the amount of exposure to nature, the greater the benefits.

Early childhood educators Edith Cobb and Maria Montessori found that nature helps children develop powers of observation and creativity and instills a sense of peace and “being at one” with the world, and that early experiences with the natural world have been positively linked with the development of imagination and the sense of wonder.

Children’s loss of regular contact with the natural world can result in a future generation not interested in preserving nature and its diversity.

You can see the complete powerpoint of the research and program of children in nature on my wesbite, and also, the best list is on the Children and Nature Network site.

So what does this mean for Belvedere? I am going to work toward offering afterschool programs for area children to come and play. My first program will be a Playwork program from the UK called Playing with the Elements starting Fall 2009. I have lots of ideas of helping children and families connect with nature, and have fun, too. I am currently running a free program for families with very small children at the Ivy Creek Natural Area.

I am also helping to co-sponsor a symposium on designing neighborhoods for children in nature coming to the Charlottesville Center for Design on the downtown mall: Free Range Neighborhoods: Designing Everyday Natural Places to Motivate Children's Outdoor Play.

More on all this later. I have to get away from this screen and outside!