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Anaesthetized by screen or energized by green? August 4, 2015

Posted by Editor21C in Directions in Education, Early Childhood Education, Engaging Learning Environments, Primary Education, Role of the family.
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 from Tonia Gray


At the recent School Principals’ Conference in Australia, a tweet went out:

Students need technology to thrive, “home is where the wifi is “‪#SPCConf15″‬‬‬‬‬‬‬‬‬‬‬‬‬‬

The tweet gave me pause; it was at odds with what parents and teachers report to me. Many are increasingly concerned about technology’s broader impact on their children, in both dramatic and subtle ways.

Before I give the wrong impression, I am no Luddite. Like so many academics, I am heavily reliant on Wi-Fi and connectivity for my day-to-day work and even my social life; however, my concern arises from a convergence of factors. To illustrate, I’d like to share three recent stories that suggest technology is not an unmitigated benefit, no matter what a tweet might tell us.

First, I was recently speaking to a mother of a teenager (aka ‘screen-ager’) who recounted that her children’s friends had a very different understanding of how to treat Wi-Fi as home. She told me:

As soon as my son’s friends walk through the front door of our ‘home’, the first thing they say is:

“What’s your Wi-Fi Password?”

She was struck by the way that hunger for technology had overridden the desire for direct human interaction; friends gathered to share access to the Internet rather than to actually interact.

As educators, do we really want to force more internet-based interaction on our students? Do we think that they are not getting enough electronically-mediated connection? Or are we more concerned that they are engaged in two-way dialogue, with face-to-face interaction and human connection?


The same parent was dismayed at the way teenagers addressed one another when they met. She felt that gone are the days where we said:

“Hello. Thanks for having me over. How have you been?”

On the contrary, she worried that Wi-Fi has subsumed their world. Or in simple terms – it is their world.

As a health and outdoor educator, my concern with screen addiction is that interpersonal relationships are being affected in insidious ways. Wi-Fi and screens compete directly with channels of authentic communication, with first-hand and visceral experience.

In our 21st Century ‘Brave New World,’ I constantly notice parallels between Wi-Fi and ‘Soma.’ For those not familiar with Aldoux Huxley’s (1932) novel, A Brave New World, Soma was the fictional drug administered to keep the masses placated, unquestioning and inert – a source of pleasure that dulled people’s senses and capacity to reflect on their own lives. In short, society was tranquilised by Soma. Are our screens the electronic equivalent, anesthetising us and removing us from more intense connection with the world around us?

Which leads me to my second cause for concern: the iPad stroller holder. The ironies of the iPad stroller holder are many: the product forces the screen into the face of a toddler, maybe even before he or she knows how to really use it. It replaces the chance to look about while riding in the stroller with the necessity of staring at the screen.

Are parents are using technology ‘in loco parentis,’ or as an electronic baby sitter to replace the parent?

What compelling evidence is there that children can’t sit in a confined space without having a screen hovering before their eyes? Why don’t parents choose to interact with their children and their surroundings whilst pushing the stroller?

The Baby Beehavin’ stroller holder advertisement exemplifies this concern:

Being a mom is not easy. Raising kids and taking care of yourself can be a lot of work.
If you plan to take your child with you for a walk in the park, you may as well take your iPad with you.
The Baby Beehavin’ Stroller iPad Holder is what you need to attach your tablet to a stroller.

tania 2

Image from Baby Beehavin

Raising a child has never been easy. Although this is true today, our ancestors managed to raise us (and our parents and grandparents) without the labour-saving devices that we now depend upon: no washing machines or dryers, or even disposal nappies. And they managed with much larger families in many cases.

Some are using technology as a pseudo-parenting device, a form of pacifier that keeps the kids sedate in restaurants or tranquil on long trips traveling in cars or planes. Speech development is adversely influenced as a result of low levels of verbal interaction between parent and child. How often do parents hand their children a personal device to play games as a positive reward for silence or complacency? Another stark reminder of analogues between technology and Huxley’s fictional Soma: passivity is rewarded with a pleasure that encourages still more passivity.

Screens replace unstructured, spontaneous play and engagement with the natural world. We run the risk of making play, unhindered by fear, propelled by curiosity and a sense of wonder and discovery, seem too dangerous, too vigorous, or simply too loud.

I have long argued that young people need to actively and repeatedly engage with the natural world in order to mature. Evidence is mounting to suggest a direct relationship between nature and well-being (Children and Nature Network, 2015). Developmentally, children’s senses, their executive function, emotions, and physical, social, and intellectual capacities have been shown to be enriched by nature (for the academics in the crowd, check Bell, Wilson & Liu, 2008; Cohen-Cline, Turkheimer & Duncan, 2015; Gray & Martin, 2012; Kellert, 2012; Wells, Myers & Henderson, 2014, for a few examples). But more importantly, relationships are the key to academic success, especially child-parent or child-teacher relationships (Hara & Burke, 1998). Sadly, child-screen dependence can overshadow our need for quality relationships.

Children have never been so alienated from the natural world due to an increased reliance on technology and hyper-vigilant parental safety concerns. But they are also in danger of being separated from each other and from us, the adults in their lives (see ABC Big Ideas).

This leads to my third concern: screens are fundamentally solitary and sedentary, alone and inert. This combination of solitude and stillness is a recipe for a cocktail of lifestyle health problems. We run the risk of long-term consequences – heart disease, diabetes, metabolic syndrome, obesity. Even before the situation gets so dire, we in physical education notice that some school-aged children are simply not capable of doing some of the most basic bodily skills that we once took for granted: running, jumping, skipping, climbing, balancing, throwing a ball.

In terms of solitude, our experiences of electricity blackouts have changed drastically, especially when loss of electricity means the Wi-Fi disappears. For the first few minutes or even hours, we experience withdrawal symptoms. Some families have to rediscover how to communicate – face-to-face without our screens, can we remember how to interact? Maybe we need a ‘digital detox‘?

In this sense, the tweet is correct: home (and school) is where technology dependency starts. Both could instead provide connected “play-able spaces” that offer absorbing and open-ended challenge activities for children rather than screens to reward them for passivity.

Most importantly, home and school should foster social connectedness where children are drawn together into common experiences. Schools and homes should be designed for richness of environment using engaging sensory materials which incorporate a sense of delight and containment. And natural green spaces are essential for both home and school, to energise and delight us.

Has Wi-Fi become the new ‘Soma’ for our ‘Brave New World’? In response to the tweet about home being where the Wi-Fi is, I would suggest:

“Students need quality interpersonal relationships at home and in nature for them to thrive. It starts with their parents and with schools.”



ABC Big Ideas http://www.abc.net.au/tv/bigideas/stories/2014/05/16/4005866.htm accessed 14 June, 2015.

Bell, J., Wilson, J. & Liu, G. (2008). Neighborhood greenness and 2-year changes in body mass index of children and youth. American Journal of Preventive Medicine, 35(6), 547-553.

Children and Nature Network (2015). Nature and Children’s Health: Effects of the natural environment on children’s health & well-being https://www.childrenandnature.org/wp-content/uploads/2015/05/CNN_2015-Nature-Childrens-Health-HANDOUT_-Wells.pdf

Cohen-Cline, H., Turkheimer E. & Duncan G. (2015). Access to Green Space, Physical Activity and Mental Health: A Twin Study. Journal of Epidemiology and Community Health, 69:523-529. doi:10.1136/jech-2014-204667

Feldman, J. (2015). Health benefits of urban vegetation and green space: Research roundup http://journalistsresource.org/studies/environment/cities/health-benefits-urban-green-space-research-roundup Accessed June 15

Gray, T. & Martin, P. (2012). The role and place of outdoor education in the Australian National Curriculum, Australian Journal of Outdoor Education. 16(1), 39-50.

Hara, S. & Burke, D. (1998). Parent involvement: The key to improved student achievement. School Community Journal, 8(2), 9-19.

Kellert, S. (2012). Birthright: People and Nature in the Modern World. New Haven: Yale Press.

Wells, N, Myers, B. & Henderson, C. (2014). School gardens and physical activity: A randomized controlled trial of low-income elementary schools. Preventive Medicine, 69, S27-S33. doi: 10.1016/j.ypmed.2014.10.012


Associate Professor Tonia Gray is an academic in the School of Education, and a senior researcher in the Centre for Educational Research at the University of Western Sydney, Australia.


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

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