Attention Deficit and Nature Deficit Disorder

I’m often struck by how much two areas of my educational work overlap: working with students at-risk and “greening” schoolyards and parks. The connection may lie in a psychological connection between humans and their environment as suggested by Richard Louv and Attention Restoration Theory researchers.  This connection is a topic I’d like to explore further since in my classroom, connecting with nature is often the key to connecting with students at-risk.

In Last Child in the Woods, Richard Louv suggests that a variety of factors have lead most of us to exist in a state of “Nature Deficit Disorder” (NDD).  This can be traced back to both a decrease in time spent outside as well as a decrease in the availability of nature when we are outside.  Some of the key culprits are new technology, changes to parenting practices and rapid development.  The idea is that NDD exists in relation to biophilia, the human innate love of nature.  NDD is the disorder that occurs when we are not able to fulfil the basic needs of our biophillic selves.  As with any disorder, there are troublesome symptoms which can include depression, attention problems, obesity and academic performance.

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I first learned about the science behind this connection in a 2013 townhall put on by the David Suzuki Foundation which featured Richard Louv. However, the connection between ADHD and NDD was much earlier made in a 2004 University of Illinois study which states, “Overall, our findings indicate that exposure to ordinary natural settings in the course of common after-school and weekend activities may be widely effective in reducing attention deficit symptoms in children.”  This makes sense in terms of pedagogy too: Visible Learning tells us that the effect of outdoor education is greater than that of most other strategies.  In fact, the longer kids get outside and the younger they start, the more effective the outcomes.  While these terms and studies may be new to us, the reality is not – we know that getting many of our hard-to-serve students outside can yield great results.  Sometimes this can be about the chance to run around, something that can also happen inside, but how often do we also talk about the kids needing some “fresh air?”

For my suburban students, fresh air is important, but it’s part of something bigger. This year when I took my Credit Recovery class out to remove invasive species in their local park, I witnessed many transformations. Students diagnosed with ADHD, some of whom have been quite oppositional and face numerous challenges in school, became engaged learners.   They worked hard, they were even leaders, encouraging others toward the goal of a healthy park and ecosystem.  I just can’t stress enough how much of a change this was.  The work may have been fun, but real learning was required and the work could become strenuous.  Still, the great news was that the kids responded and that this transformation even lasted for days afterward.  It was as if the students had received their nature booster shot, which continued to inoculate them against the mental effects of their suburban sprawl surroundings for several days.  This is about a lot more than some fresh air.

Teachers know that transformative experiences require a lot of things working together and a little luck. In the case above, doing something that matters in the real world combined with time in nature and perhaps some solid instruction and a good teacher relationship was that magical formula.  And, as delightful as it was, it wasn’t a surprise.  My department has been using nature in a variety of circumstances in transformative ways with our Credit Recovery students. As well, BEAR, a specialized program in my department for unattached students who are highly at-risk, used a variety of reasons, used environmental and recreational activities in nature to foster huge transformations that we were able to measure in terms of improved marks, attendance, attachment and empathy.

On a more personal note, I also notice that I can focus better in nature or after spending time in nature. My primary aged children can focus for a very long time on an insect or hunting for pinecones.  A friend of mine, who worried about her daughter potentially having ADHD also knows that she can focus seemingly forever on catching frogs or picking serviceberries.  It’s as if many of the distractions melt away when immersed in nature.  Or rather, our distractability melts away.

In both my personal life and my professional life, I’ve become convinced that nature is an important part of helping students learn and grow. For me this adds urgency to my work partnering with the city to improve local parks and, not only greening my schoolyard but doing that greening in a way that creates inviting spaces for students to benefit from being in nature.

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