Often I use this space to advocate for technology in the classroom: students should have access to the best digital tools we can provide them to enhance their learning and empower them as active learners. (btw, I am greatly influenced in this by the work of Howard Levin and Mark Salkind at Urban School, and their Integrated Technology Symposium is happening this week in San Francisco; you can follow it at the liveblog here).
It would be easy to conclude then that as an advocate of learning from and with technology, I am likely an opponent of learning from and with nature– I mean, clearly nature and technology are opposed, aren’t they? But no– I think we all need to fight the trap of being forced into either/or thinking. It is my humble opinion that students benefit from both more technolgy and more natural experiences, more time in the wilderness. I am reminded of the importance of this by two recently published lovely pieces, from Nicholas Kristof in the Times and from Michael Chabon in the NYRB.
Kristof is sweet: go lick a banana slug, and feel your tongue numb. Camp under the stars and get rained on. He cites Louv’s contention that that children’s growing absence from nature, and growing rates of obesity, depression, and ADD are tightly correlated (Louv acknowledges correlation does not prove causation, but nonetheless). I think Kristof is right:
So let’s protect nature, yes, but let’s also maintain trails, restore the Forest Service and support programs that get young people rained on in the woods. Let’s acknowledge that getting kids awed by nature is as important as getting them reading.
Oh, and the slug? Time was, most kids knew that if you licked the underside of a banana slug, your tongue went numb. Better that than have them numb their senses staying cooped up inside.
Chabon’s piece is wonderful too, a reminiscence of a childhood growing up in Maryland where the neighborhood was to be explored, and the wilderness of childhood was intact. It is also an elegy for a time that may be passed.
Childhood is, or has been, or ought to be, the great original adventure, a tale of privation, courage, constant vigilance, danger, and sometimes calamity. For the most part the young adventurer sets forth equipped only with the fragmentary map—marked here there be tygers and mean kid with air rifle—that he or she has been able to construct out of a patchwork of personal misfortune, bedtime reading, and the accumulated local lore of the neighborhood children…
The thing that strikes me now when I think about the Wilderness of Childhood is the incredible degree of freedom my parents gave me to adventure there. A very grave, very significant shift in our idea of childhood has occurred since then. The Wilderness of Childhood is gone; the days of adventure are past. The land ruled by children, to which a kid might exile himself for at least some portion of every day from the neighboring kingdom of adulthood, has in large part been taken over, co-opted, colonized, and finally absorbed by the neighbors.
Chabon acknowledges that there are reasons, but he also disputes the evidence for these reasons. There simply are not more childhood abductions than there used to be; our children are as safe as they ever were to explore, and we should recognize the value of allowing them this opportunity. He ends with this haunting question, so wonderfully and eloquently put, and it is a question all of us who are educators and parents should grapple with, and find a better answer to by providing our children more freedom to explore and adventure:
Art is a form of exploration, of sailing off into the unknown alone, heading for those unmarked places on the map. If children are not permitted—not taught—to be adventurers and explorers as children, what will become of the world of adventure, of stories, of literature itself?