Invisible Ink

IMG_3987Recently, a teacher showed me the amazing wordless picture book, Window, written by Jeannie Baker. This powerful work depicts how a child’s view from his window gradually changes from lush natural landscape to a congested urban cityscape as he grows from infancy to adulthood. The book is a touching illustration of the transition from natural environments to built environments.

Interestingly, how natural and built environments are depicted in children’s literature is the topic of a recent study by five scholars led by J. Allen Williams, Jr. from the University of Nebraska (The Human-Environment Dialog in Award-winning Children’s Picture Books). The study examined changes in the pictures that have appeared in children’s books since 1938. The authors examined books that had won the prestigious Caldecott Award for distinguished children’s picture books.

The study found that over the years there has been a significant decline in the depiction of natural environments (those that appeared relatively unchanged by humans) and a steady increase in the illustration of built environments (anything constructed by humans). During the years analyzed there also has been a definite decrease in the number of pictures showing domestic or wild animals in children’s picture books.

Is that a concern? Absolutely! Picture books for children mirror the priorities and interests of society. In education we talk about the concept of the null curriculum—that which is taught because it is never mentioned. If children are seeing less and less of nature in what they read, the message being conveyed is that nature really isn’t an important part of day-to-day living.

The findings of the Nebraska study become even more relevant when we look at another reflector of society—the dictionary. The 2007 edition of the Oxford Junior Dictionary created quite a stir when readers noticed several nature words like dandelion, acorn, heron, and willow had been dropped from the book. Of course, new words had been added—blog, broadband, voicemail and “cut and paste”. The nature words that were eliminated were evidently not viewed by the editorial staff as being a part of children’s typical experience.

Is that a problem? Absolutely! Dictionaries mirror the priorities and interests of society. Once again the null curriculum is at work. When we no longer include words related to nature, there is always a very real risk that those omitted words will be considered unimportant or irrelevant to daily living.

Is nature playing an increasingly smaller role in today’s culture of learning? The Nebraska study and the Oxford Junior Dictionary certainly point to that possibility. There are other indicators however. Heavy emphasis on statewide testing sometimes resurrects that archaic notion that “real” learning needs to be a bit unpleasant and focused entirely upon indoor activities such as lecture, worksheets and heavy repetition. Please understand—I have no problem with indoor learning. I would plead, however, that these activities be augmented where appropriate with outdoor learning experiences that reinforce the concepts being stressed inside.

Proudly, a teacher shared with me that her school was located on a multi-acre tract of land that had a variety of habitats- woodland, open field, early succession, etc. The school was in walking distance of both a river and a state park. Teachers were well aware of the natural resources that they had, but were reluctant to go outside and utilize them. The reason—they felt a need to focus on learning objectives for state tests. Unfortunately the assumption had been made that utilizing a rich outdoor environment was at odds with learning academic concepts. Thankfully an increasing body of research is showing that outdoor learning can be used very successfully to enhance student achievement.

Nature needs to be an integral part of our culture of learning. The outdoors is best seen both as a venue for learning, as well as a source of content. Stepping outside the classroom to reinforce a concept, or just to experience a needed change of pace and place, needs to be a part of a school’s culture. It needs to be the norm, not the occasional exception or reward. Students most certainly will not be interested in pictures of natural environments, or expect to find nature words in dictionaries, unless we provide a culture of learning that clearly values exploration of the natural world.

(I originally posted this piece in Richard Louv’s blog on the Children and Nature Network (C&NN) in April.

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