September 13, 2011

Kick Your Kids Out of the House

My older son loves to spend summer days in the park near our home, searching the trees for cicadas. When he finds one within reach, he catches it, looks at it for a while, and lets it go. He has been doing this for years, but it wasn't until recently that I realized how much he is learning just by spending time outdoors.

Cicada in Japan (photo by autan)

The other day day he said, "Dad, did you know that cicadas are higher in the trees late in the summer? I don't know if that's because they keep climbing, or because the ones lower in the trees get eaten." That is some deep scientific thinking. He observed a natural phenomenon and hypothesized some possible explanations.

He also noticed that one kind of cicada tends to have more wing damage than another. He reckoned that this could be either because the first kind comes out earlier in the summer and has more time for the wings to get wear and tear, or that it crashes more often due to reckless flying.

He made several other acute observations about the animal and plant life in our neighborhood. When I see other kids lugging their books back and forth to cram school, I feel sad for them. They are missing out on so much life and learning all around them. We need to give our kids more free time in the outdoors.

This free and active exploration is a lot closer to what real scientists do than the experiments that children do in their science classrooms. Too often, those experiments are really just demonstrations, recipes that deliver predictable results if followed precisely.

I'm not the only one advocating more outdoor time for kids. In the second of his pair of articles entitled "Want Your Kids to Get into Harvard? Tell 'em to Go Outside," Richard Louv writes in part:
Children are more likely to invent their own games in green play spaces rather than on flat playgrounds or playing fields. Green play spaces also suit a wider array of students and promote social inclusion, regardless of gender, race, class, or intellectual ability. One study found that so-called at-risk students in week-long outdoor camp settings scored significantly better on science testing than in the typical classroom. At the Human-Environment Research Laboratory at the University of Illinois, researchers have discovered that children as young as 5 show a significant reduction in the symptoms of attention deficit/hyperactivity disorder when they engaged with nature.
So how about it? Ready to kick your kid out of the house for a few hours? If we can do it it Tokyo, you can do it anywhere.

Question: What's a discovery that you or your child has made just by spending time outdoors?

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