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Vitamin N: The missing ingredient in the 21st Century Curriculum July 15, 2012

Posted by Editor21C in Education Policy and Politics, Engaging Learning Environments, Primary Education, Secondary Education.
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from Associate Professor Tonia Gray

In the words of the renowned philosopher Henry David Thoreau: We need the tonic of wilderness. And yet, in the 21st Century, we find our children increasingly without this ‘tonic’, or what Richard Louv (2011) calls ‘Vitamin N,’ for Nature. All available evidence suggests that young Australians are becoming less likely to engage in free play in outdoor environments (Maller & Townsend, 2006).

In part, the isolation can be attributed to the screen-ager generation and their choice of indoor hobbies, tethered to screens and electrical outlets (for instance social media, computer games, Wii, Nintendo, or television). Given this situation, outdoor educators agree that contemporary students are in dire need of a dose of nature if they are to grow up healthy. In this same vein, David Orr writes poignantly: “The message is urgent: unplug, boot it down, get off-line, get outdoors, breathe again, become real in the real world”.

Just last month, the NSW Auditor-General, Peter Achterstraat, called on the Department of Education and Communities to increase physical activity in NSW government primary schools, who aren’t even providing the minimum laid out in the existing curriculum guidelines, stating that:

Around 30 per cent of government primary schools are not providing the required two hours of physical education and sport per week. (Achterstraat, 2012, p. 11)

Researchers have argued that young people need to actively and repeatedly engage with the natural world in order to mature (Kahn & Kellert, 2002; Kellert, 2005; Lester & Maudsley, 2007; Louv, 2008). The relationship of the outdoors to growth and education has been widely acknowledged for centuries. For instance, the German term ‘kindergarten’ means literally, ‘children in the garden,’ clearly indicating the importance of outdoor activity.

Disconcertingly, on the cusp of educational reform in Australia with the implementation of a National Curriculum, we find that the Australian Curriculum Reporting Authority (ACARA) has omitted reference to the outdoors from the draft Health and Physical Education curriculum. The oversight neglects not only traditions of using natural environments for education, but also best practices internationally and emerging research on the dangers of Vitamin N deficiency.

Benefits of Human-Nature Connection

Over the past two to three decades, researchers have recognized the importance of human-nature connection as a determinant of health and wellbeing (see, for example, Kellert & Wilson, 1993; Orr, 2004; Stone, 2009). In contrast to the Australian case, Scandinavian schools, acknowledging the importance of outdoor activity for healthy development, immerse children in nature. Based on eco-pedagogical principles, school children spend approximately three hours each school day outside – rain, hail, snow or shine – in all four seasons. In spite of a climate that would seem to discourage outdoor activities, educators argue that there is no excuse for children staying indoors; one educator told me during a recent visit that their mantra is, ‘there is no such thing as bad weather, only bad clothing.’

This begs the question, why does our 21st Century Australian school curriculum have a growing aversion to taking kids outdoors, especially when we have a mild climate and an endless landscape of possibilities? Louv (2011) argues that children could do with a healthy dose of Vitamin N in our curriculum, especially as their leisure activity is increasingly indoors. In the face of the growing need, a child in the outdoors is an endangered species in contemporary schooling (see Gray, Martin & Boyle, 2012).

The result is that some children are becoming outdoor illiterate. Due to the inordinate time spent indoors on level floor surfaces, for example, outdoor educators are finding that Australian children cannot walk confidently and skillfully in outdoor environs; they are unfamiliar with uneven ground, crossing rivers or negotiating steep hilly terrain. Quite clearly, our modern child is not ‘nature smart’ and we need to redress this imbalance (Stone, 2009).

Nature and Well-being

The therapeutic role of nature has been documented as far back as classical Chinese and Greek civilizations (Townsend & Weerasuriya, 2010). Cultures around the world have an intuitive sense that natural environments possess restorative power; we know that outdoor settings ameliorate stress, improve mood, enhance coping ability and assist in combating depression (Nielsen & Hansen, 2007). Ironically, relaxation tapes provide artificial analogues of bird song, babbling streams, or waves crashing on the sand because we insulate ourselves from precisely these sensations. This effect of nature has been linked to biophilia, a term coined by Harvard biologist Edward O. Wilson (1984) to describe an innate love of nature and an affiliation to all living things shaped by our species’ evolutionary heritage (Sacks, 2009).

Recently, in Victoria we have seen the advent of ‘Feel Blue: Touch Green,’ an innovative mental health program using green spaces to address depression and mental illness (Townsend, 2006). This novel program is an outgrowth of studies which reveal separation from nature is implicated in declining physical, mental, social and spiritual wellbeing.

Australia’s 21st century school curriculum needs to produce a generation of students with greater, not less, environmental awareness. One way this can be accomplished is if we promote access to outdoor environments and develop an affinity with nature. Now more than ever, educators should be ensuring that children get their recommended daily allowance of vitamin N.

References:    Achterstraat, P. (2012). NSW Auditor-General’s Report Physical activity in government primary schools. Department of Education and Communities.    Australian Curriculum, Assessment and Reporting Authority (ACARA) (2012). The Draft Shape of the Australian Curriculum: Health and Physical Education (HPE) See http://www.acara.edu.au/curriculum/hpe.html    Gray, T., Martin, P. & Boyle, I. (2012). Outdoor Education and the Australian National Curriculum. Professional Educator Vol 11( 4) pp 16-18.    Kahn, P. H. & Kellert, S. R. (2002). Children and Nature: Psychological, sociocultural and evolutionary investigations. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.   Kellert, S.R. (2005). Building for Life: Designing and understanding the human- nature connection. Washington: Island Press.   Kellert, S.R. & Wilson, E.O. (1993). The Biophilia Hypothesis. Washington: Island Press.   Lester, S. & Maudsley, M. (2007). Play, Naturally: A Review of Children’s Natural Play. London: Play England.   Louv, R. (2008). Last Child in the Woods. Chapel Hill, North Carolina: Algonquin Books of Chapel Hill.   Louv, R. (2011). The Nature Principle: Human restoration and the end of Nature-Deficit Disorder. Chapel Hill, North Carolina: Algonquin Books of Chapel Hill.   Maller, C. J. and Townsend, M. (2006). Children’s Mental Health and Wellbeing and Hands- on Contact with Nature: Perceptions of Principals and Teachers. International Journal of Learning 12(4): 359-372.   Nielson, T.S. & Hansen, K.B. (2007). Do green areas affect health? Results from a Danish survey on the use of green areas and health indicators. Health and Place, 13(4), 395-413.    Orr, D.W. (2004). Earth in Mind: On Education, Environment, and the Human Prospect. Washington, D.C.: Island Press.   Sacks, O. (2009). Forward in L. Campbell & A. Wiesen (eds), Restorative Commons: Creating health and wellbeing through urban landscapes. USDA Forest Service, PA, pp 1-3.   Stone, M. (2009). Smart by Nature: Schooling for Sustainability. Centre for Ecoliteracy, Watershed Media Berkeley, CA.   Townsend, M. (2006). Feel Blue? Touch Green! Participation in forest/woodland management as a treatment for depression, Urban Forestry and Urban Greening, 5: 111-120.   Townsend, M. & Weerasuriya, R. (2010). Beyond Blue to Green: The benefits of contact with nature. Deakin University.

Tonia Gray was recently appointed Associate Professor of Education in the School of Education at the University of Western Sydney, Australia. Her research interests include: Ecopedagogy, human-nature relationships; reflection and experiential learning in a variety of educational settings; risk taking; PDHPE; and facilitation and leadership styles in adventure education. In the past twenty years Dr Gray has attracted National teaching awards, several research grants, published monographs; written approximately 20 book chapters and 40 refereed publications. She will be presenting material relating to this post at the Nature Education symposium on August 9th 2012 at Taronga Park Zoo. Click here for the link to the symposium web site:  http://www.environment.nsw.gov.au/edresources/NatureEdEvent.htm


1. Bill Pigott - July 16, 2012

Good call!!

One part of the answer to this disturbing trend might be found in the schools all over the country that every two years are candidates for state and national Landcare Education Awards. I have been inspired every time I see the write-ups of the finalists or hear their presentations at the times of the Award ceremonies. The next National Landcare Awards will be in September 2012, and there are some inspirational schools in the line up.

Another part of the answer might be to introduce integrated field work in “wild” locations, looking at the biology, geology, geography, art, literature and history of such a “wild” place. Lots of vitamin N!

2. Assoc Prof Tonia Gray - July 17, 2012

Dear Bill–

I’m glad you liked the post and I am mindful of your own personal affinity with Nature through the lens of a medical practitioner.

Can you please provide information about the Landcare Awards as I would love to see what innovative and inspirational presentations are being put forward.

The more Vitamin N in the school curriculum, and society in general, the better.

Kind regards

Bill Pigott - July 17, 2012

go to : http://www.landcareonline.com.au/nationalawards/finalists.php

There are finalsists from each state. For example:
Corowa South Public School, NSW – Westpac Education Award
Corowa South Public School

Corowa South Public School has been nominated for the Westpac Education Award for their dedication to environmental learning, including their project to provide habitat for threatened bird species.

The school engages with parents and the local community to tackle NRM issues, and have close ties to the Murray CMA through their participation in the Creative Catchment Kids Program and the Murray Catchment Action Plan Targets.

One of the most significant projects that the school has undertaken is the construction of a garden to attract the threatened Diamond Firetail Finch to come to the school gardens to feed. As part of this project, students have removed introduced plants, planned a native vegetation restoration program focusing on a native grass understorey and introduced additional key habitat components such as logs and native grasses.

Working with Sue Rose, botanist from Wirraminna Environmental Education Centre and Natasha Lappin from the Murray CMA, the students have developed a native grass and shrub planting plan and used trees which fell in a storm to create an attractive habitat for these birds and places for the students to reflect and observe native fauna and flora. This project alone has allowed the students to gain leadership opportunities, involvement in school decision-making, and the opportunity to work with NRM leaders and promote environmental education in the school and community.

Corowa South Public School also use their environmental learning program as a way to engage their students in art and photography. The school won both first and second prizes in the 2012 Wetland Care Australia National Arts and Photography competition and for three consecutive years they have won the Dymock’s National Rare and Threatened Species Golden Paw Art Competition for New South Wales.

Corowa South Public School is one of 88 finalists in the National Landcare Awards to be announced in Sydney on 4th September, 2012. Commencing in 1991, the Awards celebrate the achievements of individuals and groups that make a valuable contribution to the land and coast where they live and work.

Click here to vote now

Bill Pigott - July 17, 2012

The finalists in the National Landcare Awards were the winners in the State Landcare Awards of 2011, so if you ‘google’ the State Landcare Awards, you should get information on many more schools.
My favorite from the 2010 National Awards was Baldivis Children’s Forest ” Conservation Through Education”
I’ll send you some material on them in a separate e-mail.

Bill Pigott - July 17, 2012

Another resource:

see; http://www.hn.cma.nsw.gov.au/news/6329.html

Landcare in Your School – High School Teacher’s Resource
14 May 2012, 11:50am

Following on from a successful pilot project with Colo High School, Greening Australia and the HNCMA have produced two high school landcare resources for teachers: a general edition and western Sydney specific edition.

Filled with great case studies, tips and advice as well as lesson plans for Stage 5 Geography, Agriculture and Science, this resource will be an invaluable help for anyone who wants to promote the ethos of landcare in their local school.

Contact details
Vanessa Keyzer
Regional Landcare Facilitator
Ph: 02 4725 3041
Fax: 02 4725 3088

at http://www.hn.cma.nsw.gov.au/news/6329.html you can download copies of the teachers guide. (Tonia, I can send you one if you like. Bill)

Tonia Gray - July 18, 2012

Dear Bill,

Thanks for this wealth of material and I look forward to digesting every bit.

warmly Tonia

3. Clarie Lisle - July 17, 2012

Thank you for sharing your work. This area is what I perceive to be the future thinking required to achieve sustainability. The ecological nature of wellbeing is undeniable. This is an area that I also hold close to my heart as a teacher of young minds. I am fortunate to work in a School that possesses an ecological consciousness within itself. Although resource preservation is essential, sustainability goes beyond this; connecting with the human condition.

4. Tonia Gray - July 18, 2012

Hi Clarise – thanks for your input and I know the work you’re doing in Victoria with the “young minds” in your class, is held in extremely high esteem.

5. Vitamin N: The missing ingredient in the 21st Century Curriculum ... | Pedagogy and Research Theory | Scoop.it - July 19, 2012

Reblogged on scoop.it/t/pedagogy-and-research-theory/p/2197476…

6. David Thompson - August 3, 2012

This is an area we explored in our Men’s Health Week campaign at UWS and in the community in June 2012. We wanted to say to the community that you can achieve health outcomes by participation in outdoor activities, and that this approach is more fun, more engaging and less a ‘health lecture’ than telling boys to ‘get off the couch’ or men to ‘walk more’. And it worked with a record number of events and a huge response. http://www.menshealthweek.org.au/En/Pages/5f6fbb/Environments–Health.aspx

toniacaroluws - August 3, 2012

Hi David — Great to hear of the success you had with the Men’s Health Week. Let me know if you are going to do similar things in the future at UWS, as I am PE/Health trained as well (undergrad) and a Masters in Community Health — and can offer some input if you like? Regards Tonia

7. Vitamin N: The Missing Ingredient in the 21st Century curriculum | Tonia Gray - August 10, 2012

RE-blogged on Tonia Gray’s blog.

8. Jorge Knijnik - August 18, 2012

Great post, indeed, vitamin N is such an essential part of our life that is quite unbelievable that it’s missing in our children’s daily lives. A question: how can we challenge the amount of ‘screen education’ (as you pointed above) in order to increase our students’ vitamin N input? Thanks again for sharing your ideas.
Kind regards,

9. tonialeannegray - August 21, 2012

Hi Jorge-

I firmly believe we need to coexist with technology but I would personally say it is all about ‘balance’ i.e. time indoors offset with an equal amount of time outdoors.

It appears to me that the imbalance (read; more time indoors) has become increasingly prevalent in the past decade or so. Children have become outdoor illiterate.

Look forward to catching up with you @ UWS soon.

10. Vitamin N: The missing ingredient in the 21st Century Curriculum | ecopedagogies - October 2, 2012

[…] https://learning21c.wordpress.com/2012/07/15/vitamin-n-the-missing-ingredient-in-the-21st-century-cur… Share this:TwitterFacebookLike this:LikeBe the first to like this. This entry was posted in Uncategorized. Bookmark the permalink. ← Welcome to our Ecopedagogies site Children respond to call of the wild → […]

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