Wednesday, June 9, 2010

Mindstretchers Conference

 Nature Kindergarten and Mindstretchers Training Facility PICTURES
Today I attended the “Mindstretchers- A Child’s Right to be Heard” Conference.  First speaker was Richard Louv…author of “Last Child in the Woods”.  Richard spoke of the current generation suffering from Nature Deficit Disorder and the narrowing of children’s outdoor opportunities which is happening progressively. Nature does not steal time but amplifies life whereas time spent on electronic devices really does steal time.  Richard asked us to recall our favourite play space as a child.  For all present it was in an outdoor setting, away from supervision and not a manufactured, commercial play space.  He spoke of his favourite play space when growing up and the freedom he experienced there.  There is a tendency for children going outdoors less often, due to a perceived risk which is amplified by journalism and scare tactics.  Over the last 15 years there has been a real disengagement of children with nature.  Richard said in his grandparents time they had freedom to roam up to 15 miles from home.  For some children of today, the boundary is the front step.  He suggested that the current generation of children are under “house arrest’.  This change has occurred in 3 decades.
He spoke of the increasing prevalence of ADHD and related this to the increase disengagement with nature.  In some schools in the States, 30% of boys are on Ritalin.  There have been thousands of studies on ADHD and the effect different medication has.  He knows of only 10 studies of ADHD and the positive effect reengaging with nature can have.  Of these children, symptoms are much improved even with a small increase in contact with nature.  He believes nature therapy should be added as a third tier to ADHD treatment. As little as 5 minutes of outdoor time can significantly impact on children’s mental health.  We shouldn’t ignore the positive impact the natural world has on children.  The benefits of nature to mental health are well documented. 
Many of the current generation of parents are denatured, meaning they have had little or no experience with nature.  There is a real over structuring of childhood, with organise sport, violin lessons, dance lessons and the like taking up every waking moment.  Parents feel they are doing the right thing, however there is no need to have a child’s day so structured.  This needs to be contrasted with enrichment through nature time….that is children having the freedom to be outside, enjoying nature. There is a perception that children are maturing earlier than in previous generations with greater exposure to adult media and internet….this is a fallacy.   Todays 7 year old has the same executive function (decision making ability) as a 5 year old had 40 years ago.    For example when a child is in their own make believe world they are effectively the CEO, needing to make all the decisions in that time and space.  With the lessening of this free play and self discovery that used to happen outdoors, children’s ability to make decisions, good or bad, has gone backwards. Children when having free play time, need to be free from adult influence and adult decision making and be allowed to make their own decisions and possibly their own mistakes which is all part of their growth and development.
Family Nature Clubs are a growing movement in the USA.  These clubs allow families to participate in group activities in the outdoors.  Family Nature toolkits are available for free download from this site. In the USA, the No Child Left Inside Coalition works to get children outside and actively learning. They hope to address the problem of nature deficit disorder. They are now working on the No Child Left Inside Act, which would increase environmental education in schools. The coalition claims the problem of nature deficit disorder could be helped by “igniting student's interest in the outdoors” and encouraging them to explore the natural world in their own lives. Wikipedia.
In summary, parents and teachers can help by talking with children about their health and enhancing their time in the natural environment.  Big issues like climate change, energy and urban design should be talked about positively and how we can look forward to the future.  Change is possible…even Sesame Street after not changing its set for 40 years, has this year incorporated a new natural environment set into the production!
Next speaker was Claire Warden, author of “Nurture through Nature”.   Claire is the Founder of Mindstretchers Philosophy and a Senior Consultant.  Mindstretchers is a dynamic company, made up of an enthusiastic and dedicated group of people who feel that all children are entitled to learn in a multi sensory and naturally creative environment.  Factory produced manufactured toys produce second hand learning when children could explore concepts far more deeply when participating at a more natural level.  She questioned why teachers think there are more dangers outdoors than indoors and why we need more supervision outdoors than we do in a classroom.  There are numerous dangers in a classroom…eg power points, bookshelves, sharp pencils, pins that students generally know how to use or not use correctly.  So why do we think that they are not capable of making correct decisions when playing outside?
 Children will learn to manage risks when exposed to them.  Why are teachers making decisions about what play equipment children can use at a “certain age” when a 5 year old may be far more capable of using a particular piece of equipment than an 8 year old, yet 5 year olds are banned from that area of the playground?  It is an assumption that all 5 year olds are at the same gross motor development stage as each other and all 8 year olds are at the same gross motor development stage as each other.  Children of all ages should be able to play in the same area and make their own decisions based on their own risk assessment.
Claire talked extensively on the Nature Kindergartens Mindstretchers had set up locally where children spend up to 80% of their day outdoors in all kinds of weather…rain and even snow doesn’t deter them.  This is a very naturalistic and highly consultative environment where children from the age of 2 – 5 yrs have prolonged access to woodland and where self risk assessment is encouraged as is developing independent and confidence. 
I was extremely fortunate to be taken out to one of these Nature Kindergartens by Niki Buchan who is part of the Mindstretchers team, is Head of Nature Kindergartens an Educational Development Manager and In-service trainer as well as works in the kindergarten. This visit reinforced everything Claire discussed about the positive aspects on children’s learning and development of the whole person.  The training facility and kindergarten made fantastic use of water play, natural vegetation tunnels, gardens, undulating grounds, meeting areas, gates, stiles, sand play, imaginative play areas, dens (cubbies), unsupervised areas.  There were stone paths that babies were encouraged to crawl along, plants with prickles that if a child touched it, it hurt but they wouldn’t do it again…without being told by an adult!  All part of their ability to self risk assess from the ages of 2 – 5 yrs. See photos.
Next speaker, Professor Peter Higgins who holds a Personal Chair in Outdoor and Environmental Education at Moray House School of Education at the University of Edinburgh. The department has an international reputation and is one of few in the world with both a practical and teaching orientation as well as substantial research interests in the field of 'learning outdoors'. 
Pete spoke at length about Outdoor Learning and what really matters is the Place you use, the Activity that is undertaken and the People you interact with.  Pete’s website has a wealth of information and free tips and activities for educators.  Peter quoted from Patrick Geddes who spoke about children learning through the three “H’s”…heart, hand and head (see earlier blog).  This reinforced Sue Humphries philosophy at Coombes PS.  “Give children responsibility and they will learn”. He spoke about the Scottish Government’s Curriculum for Excellence through Outdoor Learning and how this initiative has reinvigorated outdoor learning.  Whenever he is asked the question often asked by detractors of Outdoor Learning… “Why teach outdoors?” he replies “I will answer that when you tell me “Why teach indoors?”
Final speaker was Tim Gill who is one of the UK’s leading writers and thinkers on children’s play and free time.  Tim argues that   childhood is being undermined by the growth of risk aversion. This restricts children's play, limits their freedom of movement, corrodes their relationships with adults and constrains their exploration of physical, social and virtual worlds.
Tim  said society is recasting normal childhood experiences as being high risk and how we are falling play to a “zero risk” approach.  This is taking us away form what is vital for children to learn…reintroducing into children’s lives, outdoor experiences of past generations. He also mentioned how children have lost the right to roam in only 3 generations.
In attempt to adopt zero risk aversion in UK playgrounds, playgrounds have become stale, uninteresting and underused resources.  Challenges that children enjoyed were seen as high risk and so were removed.
In summary, don’t set the bar at the level of the most risk adverse parent or staff member. As quoted on Tim’s website, “Children have the potential to be more resilient, capable, creative and able to learn more than we give them credit for. Yet their lives are becoming ever more scheduled, controlled and directed.”  “ We need to accept that it is natural and healthy for children to explore, take risks, make mistakes, seek out adventure and test boundaries.”
I also met with Rob Bushby  John Muir Award Manager.  There is a possibility of developing a Withers Primary School link with the John Muir Award.  This award was mentioned by Alasdair Earnshaw in a previous blog.  I also met with Dr Robbie Nicol a Lecturer from Edinburgh University  who was very interested in the Churchill Fellowship and has requested a copy of my report.
The Mindstretchers Conference was on outstanding opportunity for me to tie together many of the practices I have observed in schools and supporting organisations.  The number of additional contacts I have made will assist me greatly on my return to Withers PS.     I would like to thank Juliet Robertson who I finally met yesterday.  Juliet was instrumental in assisting me with much of what I have undertaken in Scotland.


Joan said...

Great post Stuart - very detailed. I enjoyed it...and the photos. Nice to see your smile :)

Fiona said...

Stuart I see a wealth of knowledge coming out and several Masters thesis projects you could easily undertake...worth a thought!

Stuart Cumming said...

Thanks mum and Fiona.

Rob said...

Hi Stuart
Very impressed that you had all this written up by 7.43am the day after the conference. Is this a Churchill Fellowship requirement?? Very serendipitous to sit next to you at lunch. Will drop you a line shortly.
Rob Bushby, John Muir Award Manager

Emma Strong said...

Well, they say farm kids are often more capable, resilient and independent, cause they've had that opportunity to roam further, test boundaries, make mistakes. And, yes, the playgrounds of yesteryear allowed for more mistakes and learning: I learned not to fall from great heights onto concrete. Ouch. Hey, I'm looking forward to some great outdoor adventures for classes at Withers; it beats packing up libraries any day.

Stuart Cumming said...

Thanks Rob for comment and email...not a requirement to even do a blog, but I wanted staff and students at my school to follow me on the this trip and see what I am seeing. At the end of the Fellowship I have to submit a report, so this blog will help me when I get home..have to do it straight away, otherwise I forget!! Very pleased we met each other and I have had a look at the link you sent...loved it.

Stuart Cumming said...

Emma…really pleased that you are following the blog and I am enjoying your observations….everything I am seeing and hearing is really back to the basics which we seem to have bypassed…can’t believe you got the packing up of the library job!!

Juliet Robertson said...

Hi Stuart

This is a lovely recap of the conference. You have a copy of the NAEE journal that has a Scottish feature. I was due to do a conference write up for this journal. However, looking at your blog, if it's OK with you, I'd like to forward it to the editor to see if he thinks this is a suitable submission. You will, of course, be noted as the author!

Best wishes


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