While it seems that the rest of the nation’s children suffer from Nature-Deficit Disorder, Caleb and his homeschool co-op friends learn in the ultimate classroom: Hawai’i. One day last week, Caleb and his friends spent the morning identifying and learning about lizards. Then, they climbed on their bikes and traveled dirt roads to the historic Waialua Sugar Mill with stunning views of the Waianae Range. This is what home-education looks like in our family and I couldn’t be happier about it.
“Progress does not have to be patented to be worthwhile. Progress can also be measured by our interactions with nature and its preservation. Can we teach children to look at a flower and see all the things it represents: beauty, the health of an ecosystem, and the potential for healing?” – Richard Louv, Last Child in the Woods: Saving Our Children from Nature-Deficit Disorder
The statistics on our nation’s media addiction are downright depressing. American children aren’t spending time in nature because their parents aren’t making the outdoors an integral part of family life and schools are far too busy running the gerbil wheel of testing to invest in true outdoor education. Even here in Hawaii, parents jog past my house pushing strollers while their toddlers squint at iPads. They are pushing their children through some of the most beautiful scenery on planet Earth but they might as well be seated in front of a television.
Nature-based learning encourages children to get outside, move their bodies, and connect with the natural world. Play-based learning acknowledges that pretend play is a primary driver of children’s development across a range of other areas of interest. Through play, children develop a range of skills, abilities, and competencies important for academic and life success. Oahu Homeschool Co-Op, the organization I founded with the help of my extraordinary friends, combines these learning styles and takes full advantage of our island home with lots of outdoor play. The co-op acknowledges the necessity of contact with the great outdoors and the growing body of research linking our mental and physical health directly to our association with nature. Thankfully, the co-op members are spectacular people, who “get” these concepts and plan creative educational opportunities for our children.
Today’s children spend an average of seven hours each day on entertainment media, including televisions, computers, phones, and other electronic devices. Worse still, most children attend schools which keep them indoors under fluorescent lights for about 40 hours a week with very little physical exercise or playtime. As a result, most children are raised without meaningful contact with the natural world and can’t identify the trees or animals common in their neighborhoods.
In contrast, our homeschool co-op kids can tell the difference between geckos and other lizards on the island. For those who aren’t in the know, there are 1196 species of gecko (seven of whom are found here). Geckos and chameleons both belong to the Iguania group, which includes reptiles with sticky tongues that are used for catching prey. Caleb is a master chameleon-spotter on the trails, where invasive Jackson’s chameleons hide in the thick vegetation and feast on Hawaii’s native snails. He found the little female pictured below, caught her gently, and let the other children in the group hold her.
At four years old, he’s also able to identify mango trees, guava, lilikoi vines, koa haole, kukui and citrus trees, and several varieties of ferns. I’m often completely astounded by his ability to recall and correctly identify the birds we encounter on trails and in botanical gardens. Last month, as we strolled along a trail in Manoa, Caleb pointed to a tree branch above us, “Look, Mommy! A shama bird!” Perched in a hau tree was a bird which looked very much like a navy-colored Eastern Bluebird with a long tail. I scrambled to pull the trail guide from my pack and look up the bird, which turned out to be a white-rumped shama. Caleb and his co-op peers can probably identify more of the flora and fauna here than the adults who have lived on this island their entire lives. The learning doesn’t stop there though.
We are fortunate to live in an area abundant in museums, cultural events, theatre & the arts, centers of higher learning, and a myriad of businesses which welcome children. After learning about geckos and lizards during last Friday’s co-op session (created & hosted by the extraordinary Carolina), the children pedaled to the Waialua Sugar Mill. Without prompting, the children parked their bikes in the shade and walked inside the Island X, a coffee/chocolate/gift shop with an old country store feel. How many four year olds can confidently walk into a store, calmly select items from the shelves, and politely pay for their purchases with minimal supervision? Our kids can and did.
Later, when we rode our bikes back down the dirt roads to our car, Caleb told me that we needed to organize a trash clean up in the area because he’d seen rubbish along the way. He suggested that we make it another fun co-op session and then go tour the soap factory at the Sugar Mill. Keep in mind that we’d pedaled by the soap shop entrance, but didn’t go in there or even discuss it at the time. This made such sense to me: clean the trail and visit a soap shop. I couldn’t have planned it any better myself!
We loaded Caleb’s bike, hopped in our car, and drove back home chatting happily about the day. It wasn’t a particularly unusual day because the co-op does this sort of thing three or four times a week, but that’s exactly what makes it fantastic: our regular “school” day is a million times better than an average day in public school. Our regular day involved chasing lizards in the shade of giant mango trees, cycling beneath a rainbow-filled sky on red volcanic soil, and visiting an historic building bursting with local businesses.
For my observant energetic son, the outdoor world is his Ritalin and his classroom with it’s ever-changing scenery is nurturing his creativity and increasing his productivity. He’s paying attention to his environment in ways I could never have anticipated and it’s inspiring to witness.