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The Nature of Learning

Amie Keddy, Head of Upper School

The Lebanese-American writer, Khalil Gibran, once wrote: “Forget not that the earth delights to feel your bare feet and winds long to play with your hair.”

We are fortunate to live in a time where what writers heralded, and educators intuited for centuries, neuroscience now widely endorses--the power of nature to transform human experience.

According to experts, spending time in contact with nature, even if that contact is as brief as a daily walk through green space, can boost immunity, improve focus, diminish depression, strengthen observation skills, increase creativity, and even extend life-expectancy.

It is no coincidence, then, that writers and artists have immersed themselves in nature, creating poems, paintings, treatises, and essays, resplendent with images of flora and fauna. Yet, what do these creations and these findings have to do with children and teaching? Naturalist John Lubbock, who was writing in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries observed that “earth and sky, woods and fields, lakes and rivers, the mountain and the sea, are excellent schoolmasters, and teach us more than we can ever learn from books.”

Of course, Lubbock, who was no stranger to books, having authored at least 28 titles ranging from Ants, Bees and Wasps to Happiness and Thrift, primarily demonstrated his expertise through the written word. However, he felt it essential that students spend time outdoors engaged in hands-on experiences. Lubbock knew what twenty-first century science has come to document: The human brain benefits from all things natural.

In a world where we and our young people are increasingly scheduled and bound to devices, witnessing a child marvel over an iridescent red dragonfly that hovers within arm’s reach, or seeing a student carefully press a buttercup between the pages of her English journal, reminds me of the importance of pausing, and more essentially, the importance of carving out time during which those pauses can occur.

And why is pausing so necessary? The pause is literally healing, and can contribute to a more successful future for our children.

In one of numerous studies, the pause lasts just a few minutes: “A 15-minute walk in the woods causes measurable changes in physiology. Japanese researchers led by Yoshifumi Miyazaki at Chiba University sent 84 subjects to stroll in seven different forests, while the same number of volunteers walked around city centers. The forest walkers hit a relaxation jackpot: Overall they showed a 16 percent decrease in the stress hormone cortisol, a 2 percent drop in blood pressure, and a 4 percent drop in heart rate. Miyazaki believes our bodies relax in pleasant, natural surroundings because they evolved there. Our senses are adapted to interpret information about plants and streams, he says, not traffic and high-rises” (Williams 5).

In another study, “researchers from the University of Exeter Medical School recently analyzed mental health data from 10,000 city dwellers and used high-resolution mapping to track where the subjects had lived over 18 years. They found that people living near more green space reported less mental distress, even after adjusting for income, education, and employment...Those living on blocks with more trees showed a boost in heart and metabolic health equivalent to what one would experience from a $20,000 gain in income. Lower mortality and fewer stress hormones circulating in the blood have also been connected to living close to green space” (Williams 4-5).

At Bement, our school color may be blue, but we are surrounded at every turn by green, and we are supported in our desire to pause with students as they splash in the stream, pull water samples from the pond at Pine Hill, gather leaves to study from ginkgo trees lining the street, or build fairy houses in the grove near Kittredge...the list of opportunities for us to help raise healthy, creative, and intellectually curious children continues to be inexhaustible.

Additional Resources and Works Cited 2016-4#11-reduced-risk-of-early-death-11,_1st_Baron_Avebury


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