A boy, just 4, leaps into a puddle. Mud splatters high across his boots and pants. The boy races from puddle to puddle, leaping, splashing and laughing. He is exultant as he discovers his own power in the mud-puddle universe. He’s also gleaning an early physics lesson: For every action, there is an equal and opposite reaction.
At a lot of nursery schools, that reaction might include chiding the child for making a mess. But this boy goes to the Outdoor Nursery School, tucked away on the wooded grounds of a historic estate in Chevy Chase. Children here spend at least half their day in those woods learning and playing alfresco—even in winter deep.
“We like to get dirty,” the boy’s teacher, Lorrie Clendenin, says, smiling. “We like to explore. The parents know that we are all coming home messy. We dig. We take hikes when it rains and snows. We’re always out.”
The 75 children enrolled at the Outdoor Nursery School, ages 2½ to 5, are constantly moving. They wind through a bamboo grove to find out what happens when they shake the stalks after a rain. They slide across a thin sheet of ice that has formed on the ground, exploring its peculiar properties. They fling paint at an outdoor mural in an exuberant lesson on artist Jackson Pollock.
“That’s something you couldn’t do in a classroom,” Clendenin says. “We like to do, and experience, and let loose, and not worry about all the boundaries and rules.”
There’s time enough for that when they leave nursery school—too much time.
In the 79 years since the Outdoor Nursery School was founded, the nation has changed in ways that make the school profoundly countercultural. American children today spend dramatically less time outdoors than they did in 1933 for a host of reasons. Family farms with fields to explore and chores to share have largely faded from the suburban landscape.
Television has redefined Americans of all ages as consumers of both hawked goods and time spent sitting transfixed in front of the electronic screen.
The suburbs—once marketed as bucolic and expansive escapes from the confines, ills and dangers of the city—are now developed in ways that sharply limit open land where children can play and explore.
Parents who grew up roaming freely in the neighborhoods of their youth are often afraid to let their children do the same. Schools pressured to reduce budgets and raise test scores cut recess and physical education. Teachers assign ever more homework, effectively tethering children indoors after school.
Through all these changes, the number of seductively blinking electronic screens has proliferated like kudzu inside the average suburban home. Virtual adventures in the video game Portal have replaced the fort in the woods in childhood’s imagination.
Today, if a child in Chevy Chase wants to erect a tree house, his or her parents would be wise to seek a building permit waiver. “There are people in the town who are opposed to having tree houses,” Mayor Jeffrey Slavin was quoted as saying back in July, when the Somerset town council considered the matter. “Some tree houses have had to come down in the past.”
Jane Clark, a University of Maryland professor of kinesiology, coined a phrase to describe today’s physically constricted youths: She calls them “containerized kids.”
This generation of American children is the first in history to be raised without meaningful direct contact with nature, according to Richard Louv, author of the award-winning book Last Child in the Woods (Algonquin Books, 2005). Today’s children learn about the Amazonian rain forest in school, Louv observes. However, they are unlikely to spend afternoons climbing the trees in their own neighborhoods.
The results of this vast, unintended social experiment are in, Louv says: epidemic childhood obesity and a growing number of children diagnosed with attention deficit disorder and depression. Depriving children of space and time to roam not only threatens their well-being, it may irrevocably alter something essential in the American character.
“America’s genius has been nurtured by nature—by space, both physical and mental,” Louv writes. “What happens to the nation’s intrinsic creativity, and therefore the health of our economy, when future generations are so restricted that they have no room to stretch?”
There is a nascent movement to free containerized kids to spend more time exploring the natural world. Although nursery schools designed around teaching children outdoors are relatively rare nationwide, Chevy Chase is home to two. The Audubon Naturalist Society started a preschool on its 40 acres in Chevy Chase six years ago. “I feel like we are a little bit of utopia,” says Stephanie Bozzo, the school’s director.
Teachers at both nursery schools remark how calm their charges are after time outdoors. On the coldest, bleakest days of winter “even the 2-year-olds love to go outside,” says Reenie Leahy, co-director of the Outdoor Nursery School. “Maybe it’s just going to be for a 10-minute walk, because they do get cold faster than the older kids, but we go out in the rain and snow and they positively love it. You can just watch all the kids get relaxed. By the time we get back in, everybody is pretty wet. But now they happily settle down and do whatever they are going to do next. It’s calming being outside.”
Watching these preschoolers, it’s easy to believe that even in modern-day suburbia, an evolutionary memory of roaming the land is hardwired into our brains—and we deny it at our peril.
It’s easy to believe that youngsters who spend school days being awed by fox tracks in the snow, watching robins alight on icy branches and celebrating mud puddles might be at least a little changed forever.
“Those who contemplate the beauty of the earth find reserves of strength that will endure as long as life lasts,” the late environmental pioneer Rachel Carson said. “There is something infinitely healing in the repeated refrains of nature—the assurance that dawn comes after night, and spring after winter.”
April Witt, an award-winning journalist, lives in Bethesda. Send comments or column ideas to firstname.lastname@example.org