Outdoor Learning Key for Kids

Robin Moore of N.C. State speaks Sept. 13 at the Southern Virginia Artisan Center.

September 14, 2007

By PAUL COLLINS - Bulletin Staff Writer

An expert in what is called natural learning stressed Thursday night the importance of developing diverse outdoor spaces where children can learn, explore, get exercise and work out their imaginations.

Robin Moore, director of the Natural Learning Initiative and a professor of landscape architecture at N.C. State University, gave a presentation on "How Does the Environment Affect the Health of Children?" The presentation, sponsored by The Harvest Foundation, was held at the Southern Virginia Artisan Center uptown.

"Children's health is serious business," Moore said. He went on to talk about not only children's physical health but also their overall development.

According to the City Parks Forum of the American Planning Association, "Childhood in the U.S. is in crisis. The latest Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) survey estimates that 15 percent of children 6 to 19 years old are overweight or obese. Among 2 to 5 year olds, 1 in 10 is overweight or obese. Surprisingly, even in light of these frightening statistics, school districts across the country have been curtailing recess - or eliminating it altogether....

"Many children do not learn effectively exclusively within four walls of classrooms. Additional, hands-on learning environments are required to match varied learning styles."

Moore said that he has seen a big difference in how children view the outdoors since his early research in California about 30 years ago. Then, kids would come home from school and tell their parents, "See you at mealtime," then go outside, he said.

He showed pictures from that period of such things as a boy holding a snake from a hill he climbed and children riding horses. Besides exploring and playing outdoors, children would do such things as explore suburbs and ride buses downtown to explore, he said.

Now, many children spend most of their time indoors because of television and electronic toys, air conditioning and activities competing for their time, Moore said. Also there are barriers to keep kids from being outdoors, such as parental fears (which Moore doesn't think often "mirror reality") and real traffic dangers, such as lack of sidewalks or areas prohibited from traffic for people to walk to museums or parks.

Also, he said, there is so much emphasis on the No Child Left Behind Act that there is not enough hands-on, outdoor learning going on in many schools. Moore advocates using a combination of indoor and outdoor learning.

He showed many pictures of children seemingly filled with wonder as they learned or played outdoors in carefully planned and landscaped natural learning or recreation areas. Creative teachers, Moore said, can teach anywhere, and there are plenty of lessons to be learned outdoors.

A few examples he mentioned were students learning math (one child was pictured counting worms), textures, colors, science (one child suggested taking a water sample from a creek and using a microscope to look at the microorganisms in the water), animal life (a petting zoo), plant life and more.

He showed pictures of parks, gardens, greenhouses, orchards and some landscaped areas as small as several hundred square feet. He showed a picture of one children's play area that consisted of 1 1/2 acres of blacktop and no green area. Over several years, a portion of the blacktop was developed into a landscaped area (popular with children) with a variety of plant life and a creek.

He also showed pictures of a park in Cary, N.C., which cost nearly $1 million to develop (about half of which was raised by the public). He said people of all ages go to the park, which has wide, circular trails, areas for people to sit, playground equipment and diverse trees and other plant life.

Moore said it is critical to involve children in planning such facilities. "They come up with amazing things," he said, citing, for example, a "friendship garden" where children could be with their friends, away from grownups, and work on their own.

He said Martinsville has much potential and tremendous spirit. The city has a lot of open spaces and some parking lots that could perhaps be better used. It is relatively small and a place where it's easy to meet people.

He encouraged schools and child-care centers to develop or use existing areas where natural learning can take place (involving children in the planning), developing access (such as walkways) so children and families can walk to museums and parks, and developing walking trails at Wilson Park. He also encouraged much community involvement in the process.

About 25 people attended Moore's presentation, including representatives from the Virginia Museum of Natural History, the After 3 Initiative, Boys & Girls Club, Coalition for Health & Wellness, Rivers & Trails, Gateway Streetcape, Blue Ridge Regional Library, Piedmont Arts Association, Martinsville Uptown, Sportsman's Club , United Way, First United Methodist Church Daycare, after-school providers, Wilson Park, Patrick Henry Elementary School and a community advocate.

Richard E. Killingsworth, executive director of The Harvest Foundation, encouraged the audience members to take what Moore had said and see how they could improve their communities.


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