Guest Blogger: Children Need Contact With Nature

Today, I debut an occasional feature of this website: a blog entry by a guest. I am delighted that my first guest is William Crain, a professor of psychology at the City College of New York, the author of Reclaiming Childhood: Letting Children Be Children in Our Achievement-Oriented Society, and the editor of the magazine Encounter: Education for Meaning and Social Justice. I met Professor Crain while doing research for The Case Against Homework and, over the past year, I have enjoyed my many conversations with this wise man.

Children Need Contact with Nature

By William Crain

During my 35 years as a developmental psychologist, I have felt that children need rich contact with nature to develop fully. During most of this time, however, I only had a general impression that this was so; there wasn’t a significant body of research that specified what the benefits of nature might be. But by 1997, I thought enough research evidence had emerged to suggest three ways in which natural settings help children develop. I described these three benefits in a Montessori Life magazine article in the spring of that year, and more recent studies have generally supported my conclusions.

First, nature stimulates children’s powers of patient observation. As Roger Hart, Robin Moore, and others have found, children in natural settings spend long stretches of time observing things—plants, rocks, insects, birds, fish, and other small animals. Recent empirical studies by Frances Kuo, Andrea Faber Taylor, and their colleagues suggest that when inner-city children can play in even sparse green settings, their concentration on tasks improves.

Second, nature fosters creativity. In natural settings children love to create hideouts and shelters, and they often engage in rich imaginative play in these structures. Nature also inspires much of children’s drawing and painting. Parents know how commonly trees, birds, clouds, and grass appear in children’s artwork. Less is known about the poems children create, but on the basis of published anthologies, I estimate that nature inspires over two thirds of the poems composed by children between 2 and 8 years of age.

Third, nature instills a sense of peace and oneness with the world. The autobiographies studied by Louise Chawla make this point very well. Many of the writers recalled how, as children, free time in natural settings provided them with a sense of inner calm and a feeling of belonging to the larger web of life. These feelings frequently enabled them to weather the setbacks they experienced as adults. In addition, I suspect that the sense of unity with nature promotes lifelong empathy and compassion toward all living things.

In the last two years, people are beginning to pay much more attention to children’s need for time in the natural world. To a considerable extent, this new awareness is due to a popular book by Richard Louv, Last Child in the Woods. The book draws upon a wealth of interviews and makes a compelling case for getting children into natural settings. But as the book makes clear, this will not be easy. It’s difficult to get children outdoors for any activity, let alone for play and exploration in green settings.

One reason children spend so much time indoors is the lure of the electronic media. Another factor is increasing homework. I suspect that homework significantly restricts the benefits that nature can bestow on the developing child.

First Monday

In The Case Against Homework, we end the book by suggesting that parents send a note on the first Monday of every month to either a teacher or school administrator and express their frustrations. If parents took this simple action, the homework problem would become too big to ignore and we’d stop hearing that homework is a problem that affects only a few vocal families.

This Monday, October 2, is the first Monday of the month. I hope you’ll send a note to your children’s teachers or, perhaps, to a school administrator or School Board member. (If your school celebrates a holiday this Monday, then send your note on Tuesday.) If you do send a note, please let me (and other parents) know by posting in the forum under the topic “First Monday”. It’d be great if you’d post a sample of the note you sent and, if you get a response from the teacher or school, please let us know that as well.

Here’s to a new grass-roots rebellion.

“Teacher Training is Chaotic”

According to a report authored by Arthur Levine, former president of Teachers College at Columbia University, and as reported in The Seattle Times, teachers emerge from college unprepared for their jobs. “The coursework in teacher-education programs is in disarray nationwide, the report says. Unlike other professions such as law and medicine, there is no common length of study or set of required skills.” Other problems, according to Levine’s study, are, low admissions standards, disengaged college faculty, insufficient classroom practice and poor oversight.

“Teacher education right now is the Dodge City of education: unruly and chaotic,” said Levine, who now heads the Woodrow Wilson National Fellowship Foundation. “There’s a chasm between what goes on in the university and what goes on in the classroom.”

Understanding Homework Research

Duke University Professor Harris Cooper, perhaps the best known homework researcher and the author of The Battle Over Homework, explains his thinking on homework in Homework Within Reason Makes Grade.

The homework question is best answered by comparing students who are assigned homework with students assigned no homework but who are similar in other ways. The results of such studies suggest that homework can improve students’ scores on the class tests that come at the end of a topic. Students assigned homework in second grade did better on math, third- and fourth-graders did better on English skills and vocabulary, fifth-graders on social studies, 9th- through 12th-graders on American history and 12th-graders on Shakespeare.

The salient point is that homework improves students’ scores only on the class tests created by the teachers. In other words, teachers create homework so that students will do better on unit tests, and students who do that homework do better on those tests. But, Cooper makes no claim that homework has any broader benefits such as a better understanding of the material in the long run, a better educated student body, or passionate or creative or self-directed learners.

Read his views in The Atlanta Journal-Constitution.

One Teacher’s Thoughts on Homework

In an article in The Seattle Times, A teacher’s evolving view of homework, a third/fourth grade teacher with 30 years’ experience writes about how her views have changed over the years. Several years ago, she writes,

I sent out a survey, which I have since done several times, asking parents their views on homework and what they wanted in my classroom. What I repeatedly found was that most parents didn’t want hours of homework each night, and that they were very supportive of daily reading as ongoing homework. They were also relieved to know they didn’t have to fill out forms, keep track of reading minutes or have their child punished (stay in at recess, miss points, miss the pizza party, etc.) because he or she didn’t turn in paperwork.

I encourage students to be critical thinkers and self-directed learners, and we often brainstorm ideas for homework as a class. Instead of typical reading, writing and math assignments, learning at home can include building with K’Nex or Legos (future architects!), artwork, music, science projects and board games. These all involve higher-level thinking and are important brain-builders.

When the typical homework boundaries are removed, students begin to soar and will often choose to do research on their own, read for much longer periods and/or create new projects to share with the class. It becomes a very dynamic process that reinforces student interest, motivation and purposeful learning.

You can read the entire article here.

Success Stories

In the past week, I’ve received a lot of email from parents across the country who’ve started discussing the homework problem with their children’s teachers and among other parents in their children’s classes. Their letters are inspiring. For example, this morning “HM” wrote me:

After gaining insight from your book about how to approach homework overload, I drafted a letter to my daughter’s teacher and received a very positive response from her. She was unaware of the tremendous load she was placing on her students. She was very willing to help balance the work load for my daughter.

At my urging, HM posted his letter in Success Stories.

I’m happy to receive so much mail, and I do my best to respond, but if you have a story you’d like to share and you want to have an ongoing discussion or get feedback from other parents, join the discussion under the heading “Success Stories” in the forum.

Too Often, Homework Doesn’t Work

In an article in The Washington Post, As Homework Grows, So Do Arguments Against It, a staff reporter writes that the controvery over homework is growing every year. “[E]lementary school students get no academic benefit from homework — except reading and some basic skills practice — and yet schools require more than ever.”

In the nation’s classrooms, teachers say they work hard to conform to school board policies and parent demands that do not always match what they think is the best thing for children.

Yet teachers themselves don’t uniformly agree on something as basic as the purpose of homework (reviewing vs. learning new concepts), much less design or amount or even whether it should be graded. And the result can be inconsistency in assignments and confusion for students.

In the same article, a veteran educator asks, “What should homework be? In the biggest parameter, it ought to help kids make better sense of the world. Too often, it just doesn’t.”

I found this article particularly interesting, coming as it did just a few days after a review in the very same newspaper, The Washington Post, criticizing The Case Against Homework and Alfie Kohn’s The Homework Myth. In Busy Work, the reviewer dismissed both books by suggesting that “perhaps homework really is out of control in certain (generally affluent) schools and districts. But that would be a far narrower problem than the national epidemic these authors describe.”

Blaming the Victim

In a letter to a columnist in the San Benardino Sun, a single mother writes that she has moved her son from an inner-city school to one which believes in “high achievement.” She’s upset that her child brings home two to three hours of homework a night. She doesn’t want him to have to give up sports for homework, and she wonders whether there is some discrimination going on because some children spend half as long on the homework.

My mother told me to keep my mouth shut, work with my son on his homework and not to make sports my priority. I don’t agree with my mother. I think the solution to the problem is not to require so much homework. My mother likes you and whenever we have a disagreement, she tells me to ask your opinion. I have never written to you before, but I will this time.

The columnist responds:

I think your mother will continue to like me. I think you should keep quiet, help your child and make scholastics your priority.

As an aside, your accusation that the teacher is discriminatory is disgusting. Your child may be spending more time than others because he may not be used to doing so much homework, is not working smart, is behind scholastically, doesn’t understand or is wasting time. Explore these possibilities before you start labeling people as racist.

The columnist’s answer made me so mad that I wanted to write back to the mother. Here’s what I would have said to her.

The question of discrimination is a big one, in fact too big for this blog, but I think we can take a lot from the fact that the columnist resorts to name-calling in his reply.

But I can say that the columnist is guilty of doing exactly what too many school administrators do: blame the child, in this case for “not working smart” or “wasting time.”

How many times has a school suggested that it’s only your child who’s struggling with homework, that your child lacks discipline, procrastinates, is a poor planner, is unfocused. How many times has a school suggested that the nightly homework headache is your fault for failing to provide support, and that homework should come before all other activities? Excuses like these shift the blame from a system that is clearly broken to the parents and children who suffer under that system.

Taking away a child’s participation in organized sports is to deny that child one of the most important, character-building activities of childhood, a place where children learn teamwork, ethics and morals of fair play, cooperation, not to mention physical skills and physical activity. To replace that, and everything else, with mindless busywork night after night is a crying shame, and that single mother’s gut instinct was absolutely correct.

I’d love to hear what you think. The forum is open.