Education, Sustainability

Tablet for a Treehouse

Being a Mom of a 10-month-old, I’m constantly amazed how fast babies learn by doing. As we approach our son’s first birthday, I can’t believe where the time has gone. The whole experience has made me a bit nostalgic with memories of my own childhood crossing my mind as I watch him play.

We currently live in a condo and although we enjoy our balcony overlooking a small stream and marshy area, we’re also looking right at the mall and seven other high-density buildings. It’s certainly not the access to nature I had as a child with countless evergreens to climb, a nearly century-old Manitoba Maple we called the “Peace Tree” because it grew in two directions at the base, and an expansive forest just steps behind the tall cedar hedge bordering the backyard.

We loved spending time in those woods. As a small community, we took it upon ourselves to maintain a walking trail through the forest, complete with rocks lined up on the edges to mark the path. As kids, we spent hours building and then spending time in our treehouse. It was an imperfect masterpiece. A mix of whatever scrap wood we could find, craftily constructed by myself, my brother, and two of our neighbours. We called it “MECS Club 4”, a combination of our initials and – of course – the fact that there were four of us there.

Those childhood experiences absolutely shaped the person I am today. As an Environmental Community Organizer, I work on a diversity of projects. I’m passionate about my work and enjoy everything I do, but providing environmental education absolutely tops my list.

After a class presentation at an elementary school earlier this year, the teacher thoughtfully presented me with Richard Louv’s book “Last Child in the Woods: Saving Our Children from Nature-Deficit Disorder”. This book has helped me to better understand the importance of my environmental upbringing and the urgency in ensuring that our son and all children are encouraged to explore the wild outdoors.

In the book, Louv explains what it means to have naturalist intelligence. Children who are “nature smart” typically exhibit the following:

  1. Have keen sensory skills, including sight, sound, smell, taste and touch.
  2. Readily use heightened sensory skills to notice and categorize things from the natural world.
  3. Like to be outside, or like outside activities like gardening, nature walks, or field trips geared toward observing nature or natural phenomena.
  4. Easily notice patterns from their surroundings – likes, differences, similarities, anomalies.
  5. Are interested in and care about animals or plants.
  6. Notice things in the environment others often miss.
  7. Create, keep, or have collections, scrapbooks, logs or journals about natural objects – these may include written observations, drawings, pictures and photographs or specimens.
  8. Are very interested, from an early age, in television shows, videos, books, or objects from or about nature, science, or animals.
  9. Show heightened awareness of and concern for the environment and/or for endangered species.
  10. Easily learn characteristics, names, categorizations, and data about objects or species found in the natural world.

Every day, I work to raise awareness about environmental issues and bring communities together to create positive change. It can be a challenging task at times. Doing this work has really opened my eyes to the lack of human-environmental awareness in people of all ages. Many just aren’t aware of the negative impact we’re having on the planet and the importance of a healthy environment for our own wellbeing.

I worry that we’re setting ourselves up for a not-so-bright future. Many children today learn to use a smartphone before they learn to catch a frog, and maybe they never learn to catch a frog at all. Most download their first app before they study their first bug. With so much time on technology, we’re raising a generation void of naturalist intelligence and therefore a generation weak in the ten important character traits listed above. Without naturalist intelligence, we’re failing to prepare them for the multitude of environmental challenges to come. Yes, it is true that environmental education can be taught on a tablet, but it doesn’t develop brain connections the same way as the full sensory experience of being immersed in nature in a non-structured way.

Think of it this way, when we were building that treehouse, we had no idea the skills we were developing. To us, it was just play. In his book, Louv explains what our minds were really up to.

  • You probably learned the difference between screws and nails.
  • You learned about ladders.
  • You learned about pulleys.
  • You probably learned to slope the roof in imitation of real homes, or because you were beginning to understand that a slope would shed rain.
  • You probably learned to place the framing narrow side up; you were beginning to learn about “strength of materials,” a subject taught in engineering schools.
  • You learned how to cut with a handsaw.
  • You learned about measurement and three-dimensional geometry.
  • You learned how the size of your body relates to the world: your arms and legs to the diameter of the tree trunk; your height to the tree height; your legs to the spacing of the ladder rungs; your reach to the spacing of the tree branches; your girth to the size of the trap door; the height from which you could safely jump, etc.
  • Most of all, you probably learned from your failings more than your success. And that was a good thing.

Incredible, isn’t it?

Over the last decade, we’ve seen a significant decline in the science and math skills of Canadian students. I believe that their lack of naturalist intelligence plays a key role in this issue. I’ve lost count how many times I’ve had a young person tell me, “I’m no good at math”, or “I don’t understand science”. Perhaps this is because they haven’t had the opportunity to naturally develop those skills.

As a society, we can and we must reverse this trend. Starting today, we can all influence positive change by mentoring a young person. We can help the next generation be better prepared for the future and it begins with one small step.

It’s time to trade that tablet for a treehouse.


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