The Best Classroom for New Readers Might Be the Great Outdoors

Nature may be the key to developing a love of reading that will last. #ProjectLiteracy

“Children are growing systems, and need to have feet grounded in the earth to develop the brain,” says the co-founder of an outdoorsy pre-kindegarten program. Image via Flickr user Ilianna López.

Last year, a study from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention found that today’s kids are more sedentary than ever before. These overbooked digital natives spend up to 10 hours a day in front of some type of screen, shuttled from home to school to extracurricular activity, with scarce opportunity to explore the natural world. But playing in nature, it turns out, is critical to a child’s learning process, especially when it comes to developing reading and writing skills.

Fortunately, some schools and educational programs are taking this important nature-learning connection to heart. Sarojani Rohan, co-founder of the pre-K program at Mount Madonna School, puts it this way: “We understand that children are growing systems themselves, and need to be surrounded by green, growing things, need to have feet grounded in the earth to develop the brain and connect all the systems.”

Mount Madonna School is perfectly situated to incorporate the natural world into its instruction, perched as it is high up in the Santa Cruz Mountains, surrounded by the oak woodlands of Mount Madonna State Park. “When we start teaching reading, we want children to bridge the inside world and the outside world,” says Rohan. “An important part of literacy is naming things. [Words] are an abstract representation that adults take for granted. Literacy is a process.”

Children must learn that abstractions add up to meaning. Rohan’s program teaches preschoolers to “read” the world around them. “I take them out on the mountain and we learn the difference between raccoon tracks, turkey tracks, and dog tracks. We read the clouds—what does it mean when the clouds are moving fast? We read the landscape. I’m expanding the idea of what literacy is; nature is concrete, real, and right in front of them.”

Next, when the children are ready to begin writing their own names, her students are asked to pick a word a day that is important to them. “Anything they choose,” says Rohan. “A food they like, a favorite animal, a person. Then we write that, they trace it, and practice reading it. The idea that the words are theirs is a huge step in them owning their own learning.”

TimberNook nature camps, billed as “the ultimate sensory experience” for children, builds on this owned-learning approach by taking a look at what the whole body is doing when picking up new skills. As TimberNook founder Angela Hanscom has said, “Children are going to class with bodies that are less prepared to learn than ever before. With sensory systems not quite working right, they are asked to sit and pay attention.”

Hanscom comes from the world of occupational therapy, and originally developed TimberNook as an extension of that practice. So by tasking kids with exploring their worlds visually, she organically helps them exercise their vestibular systems, which she says “support all six eye muscles. A child might have fine visual acuity, but their eye muscles might not be working together, so they have trouble reading or scanning.”

TimberNook’s whole-body approach to learning “immerses children in a bunch of different senses at once, which nature provides,” says Hanscom. “Wind in your face, sun beating down on you, birds tweeting all around you—this helps with spatial awareness,” along with many other crucial learning skills, she adds.

Richard Louv, author of The Last Child in the Woods: Saving Our Children from Nature-Deficit Disorder, writes frequently of the relationship between nature and learning, and suggests that the kind of independent exploration that occurs in nature is invaluable. “One of my students told me that every time she learns the name of a plant, she feels as if she is meeting someone new,” writes Louv. “Giving a name to something is a way of knowing it.”

Literacy is more than simply rote memorization, after all. “As the brain develops with real-life experiences, then you can come into a classroom and tell stories, which engages the child’s inner picturing. This is critical to reading later on,” Rohan says.

Louv writes, “Reading stimulates the ecology of the imagination… Nature may be the key to getting kids to develop a love of reading that will last.” Rohan puts it a bit more simply: “When in doubt, go outside, is what Louv would say.”

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The problem with American Sign Language (ASL) is that over 500,000 people in the U.S. use it, but the country has over 330 million people.

So for those with hearing loss, the chances of coming into contact with someone who uses the language are rare. Especially outside of the deaf community.

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Looking back, the year 1995 seems like such an innocent time. America was in the midst of its longest streak of peace and prosperity. September 11, 2001 was six years away, and the internet didn't seem like much more than a passing fad.

Twenty-four years ago, 18 million U.S. homes had modem-equipped computers, 7 million more than the year before. Most logged in through America Online where they got their email or communicated with random strangers in chat rooms.

According to a Pew Research study that year, only 32% of those who go online say they would miss it "a lot" if no longer available.

Imagine what those poll numbers would look like if the question was asked today.

RELATED: Bill and Melinda Gates had a surprising answer when asked about a 70 percent tax on the wealthiest Americans

"Few see online activities as essential to them, and no single online feature, with the exception of E-Mail, is used with any regularity," the Pew article said. "Consumers have yet to begin purchasing goods and services online, and there is little indication that online news features are changing traditional news consumption patterns."

"Late Night" host David Letterman had Microsoft founder and, at that time the richest man in the world, on his show for an interview in '95 to discuss the "the big new thing."

During the interview Letterman chided Gates about the usefulness of the new technology, comparing it to radio and tape recorders.

Gates seems excited by the internet because it will soon allow people to listen to a baseball game on their computer. To which Letterman smugly replies, "Does radio ring a bell?" to laughter from the crowd.

But Gates presses Letterman saying that the new technology allows you to listen to the game "whenever you want," to which Letterman responds, "Do tape recorders ring a bell?"

Gates then tells Letterman he can keep up with the latest in his favorite hobbies such as cigar smoking or race cars through the internet. Letterman shuts him down saying that he reads about his interests in magazines.

RELATED: Bill Gates has five books he thinks you should read this summer.

The discussion ends with the two laughing over meeting like-minded people in "troubled loner chat room on the internet."

The clip brings to mind a 1994 segment on "The Today Show" where host Bryant Gumbel and Katie Couric have a similar discussion.

"What is internet anyway?" an exasperated Gumball asks. "What do you write to it like mail?"

"It's a computer billboard but it's nationwide and it's several universities all joined together and it's getting bigger and bigger all the time," a producer explains from off-stage.

Photo by Li-An Lim on Unsplash

The future generations will have to live on this Earth for years to come, and, not surprisingly, they're very concerned about the fate of our planet. We've seen a rise in youth activists, such as Greta Thunberg, who are raising awareness for climate change. A recent survey indicates that those efforts are working, as more and more Americans (especially young Americans) feel concerned about climate change.

A new CBS News poll found that 70% of Americans between 18 and 29 feel climate change is a crisis or a serious problem, while 58% of Americans over the age of 65 share those beliefs. Additionally, younger generations are more likely to feel like it's their personal responsibility to address climate change, as well as think that transitioning to 100% renewable energy is viable. Overall, 25% of Americans feel that climate change is a "crisis," and 35% feel it is a "serious problem." 10% of Americans said they think climate change is a minor problem, and 16% of Americans feel it is not a problem that worries them.

The poll found that concern for the environment isn't a partisan issue – or at least when it comes to younger generations. Two-thirds of Republicans under the age of 45 feel that addressing climate change is their duty, sentiments shared by only 38% of Republicans over the age of 45.

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