Damn Good Biking

Damn Good Biking
Mammath Mountain

Saturday, October 6, 2007

Nature and Children

Today while reading the new edition of the Missouri Conservationist I read an excellent article pertaining to the joint efforts of local schools and the Missouri department towards integrating outdoor nature classrooms into coursework. Outdoor Classrooms are a schism from the traditional classroom approach and provides a hand’s on approach to foster environmental education and not to mention a pretty darn cool way to teach everything from literature to biology. So far in the great land of Missouri this program has had tremendous results, my hope is that it is establishing a foundation of interest for the natural world especially for those who wouldn’t have regular access for nature based activities. So how is this going to apply to Niger you ask? What will this entry be about? Wellllll…….

…………Its about how we learn about the world through interaction and observation, it is about how our two very different societies understand nature and value its resources. Also it speaks for how important it is to incorporate a little nature in our life for our own personal development.

While reading the article my mind drifted in and out of how we educate our youth about nature through recreation, classes, or whatever but in Niger these classes don’t exist. The classroom is the world and the children live in it.

In Jared Diamond’s critically acclaimed work “Guns, Germs, and Steel” he argues that individuals from the developing world who in my terms “live as a part of nature” instead of those “apart from it” are in fact more aware of their environment and generally better adjusted and integrated in their communities. He suggests the better adjustment is due the lack of distractive items such as televisions, video games, toys etc, etc. While our kids are secluding themselves from society and reducing their learning capacity the kids from the other camp are integrating, working, and learning in a real environment to be future citizens.

Mr. Diamond then broadens his arguments by suggesting that those who “live as a part of nature” are in fact more intelligent than those who “live apart from it” due to the constant stimulus provided by direct contact with their environment and the total integration and interaction as responsible citizens within their society.

It is easy to argue with due merit that the ample list of achievements from the western civilizations is noted, but… After being here for approaching a year I see that his argument does have merit the bulk of the developing world are intelligent, just uneducated.

Concerning our own education….

Being from the “apart from nature” society what as a whole do we really understand about how the natural world operates? Or really know for that matter? What is the impact of alienating ourselves from nature? What are our perceptions and value of nature in comparison? How can I integrate what has been learned in Niger in America?

Rainy season is rapidly approaching its conclusion and soon we will be harvesting our crops and storing away all of our food for the coming year. As life transitions to the changing seasons I am starting to understand what it means to center my life on living as a part of nature. With certainly the next couple of months will be spent saying to myself in the mirror “what the hell just happened to me” but after this growing season concludes and the build up to the next growing season sets in I have to be honest with myself. What have I really taught them? I have definitely learned more from my hosts then I could ever teach them.

Again, what I have learned about nature is largely from not being in it constantly, they are.

My first rainy season in the land of the “a part of’s” has meant spending my days in the Sahelian outdoor classroom. On most occasions when I am not out wandering on my own, my teachers are children who spend countless time with me in the bush. I am constantly amazed with their deft ability at identifying each and every plant, animal, insect and tree by name then describing its edibility, usefulness, or in many cases traditional medicinal value. On the opposiste spectrum I think wow, our “apart from nature” kids can in the same detail describe every aspect of a pop icons wardrobe or lifestyle or how to pass a level on a neat-O video game. But ultimately what does this teach us about our wonderful world?

Consider the comparison of our cultures of how these contrasting lifestyles relate to one another, one civilization that survives off of the connection to the earth, or the other that in large only cares about what we can take from it. How would this impact our intimacy and need to understanding and appreciating nature. As a result of their lifestyle the children spend everyday in the bush foraging for food, working the fields, or playing games in the shade of any host of trees. Why and when do our kids in America get to interact with nature? Or what activities are they engaged? Sports? Hunting? Family Camping retreats? Is a portable Ipod or gaming season in tow?

Are you asking yourself now as I was; how was your childhood spent? What do you understand about nature’s circle of life? Can you even describe what exist in your backyard? Consider all the time you have spent in nature as a kid and consider the typical child’s experiences in nature today. Perhaps you could probably half that and it might accurately portray the typical child’s interaction. I have friends with kids and the kids always ask me to take them camping, the interests is always there, maybe just not the nature. But who knows, I don’t have kids of my own.

Sure in the “apart from” camp we have the scouts, after school nature programs, youth nature outreach etc. etc. Where I currently reside the children live in it and are using their imaginations constantly not to mention being challenged by their environment constantly, what kind of character do you think this develops. The sense of responsibility?

How does enjoying nature or living from it directly correlates with personal development?

The article from the Missouri Conservationist borrows the phrase “Nature-Deficit Disorder” from Richard Louv’s book Last Child in the Wood: Saving our Children from Nature-Deficit Disorder. It states:

“Children need nature for the healthy development of their senses, and, therefore, for learning and creativity”

Putting context to my own experience “Nature Deficit Disorder” struck me as something that puts into technical jargon what has been on my mind for years. I don’t know about you guys but I start getting a little jumpy if separated from nature for any extended portion of time. A lot of my childhood was spent exploring areas in rural Missouri and Arkansas and as a result it cultivated my self confidence, creativity and self dependence. Reminiscing over my childhood my thoughts drift to my youth spent at my grandma’s and how I would say to her on many occasions after breakfast that I was “going snake huntin” so I saddled up the horse and would be out all day eating berries off the back of the horse, swimming in the ponds, or reading under a shade tree in-between imaginative adventures. Afterwards wandered off to the ole’ fish pond and would bring home a mess of catfish for dinner and enjoy our harvested vegetables from the garden. Ahhhhhh the strawberry patch!!!

It’s a different environment and culture but where I come from there are a lot of similarities to the Nigerien childhood. In fact just being here has made me appreciate so much more my incredible youth and how much in common my childhood in America has with my experience of Niger.

It's part of our nature as humans to want to enjoy a sunset, a path whatever…Whether we know it or not we all want a little nature in our lives? Lunch break in the park? We all understand the connection is important; it just takes getting out and doing it. Do you share these types of memories? Do you find the value of taking time to commune with nature? Good, then turn off the tube and take a kid out to nature, doesn’t even have to be your own. Just get permission first; child abduction is not too cool.

It would not take much effort to suggest that despite the failing test scores (blah!) we do receive great educations but is it enough? I love quotes and try to live by the good ones so when Mark Twain famously said “Don’t let your schooling interfere with your education” it all made sense. It gave me a reason to skip class, bomb a test, or hop in my car and drive to Colorado to become a white water raft guide on a couple days notice? Sure my grades were pretty bad and the “not filling his potential” speeches were delivered like clockwork, but damn if I wasn’t out challenges myself and isn’t that what its all about? Why not concentrate on integrating the best of how we educate and putting it in direct connection to the world. If that means letting our kids get a little dirty and allow them to make mistakes on their own and learn for themselves, well would that be such a bad thing? And it doesn’t stop with only nature clubs does it?

In the typical villages of Niger if the students are fortunate enough to extend their educations beyond primary level they often chose to study something related to natural resources or earth sciences. Culturally they have a predisposition towards these disciplines and as Niger’s economy is largely based on development, the country has a base of very able bodied people capable of working within communities to improve their livelihood. But they lack the resources for formal educations due to money, transportation and culture. What do I mean by culture?

Unfortunately there is a down side to this type of informal education because the education system is quite contrary to the learning style of the Nigerien culture. To move through the education system in Niger one has to speak French, and since it is obviously not the native tongue of the country many are left disadvantaged and their formal education ceases. Or the schools are very rigorous and don’t tend to individual learning styles. But even if they are unable to receive formal educations, similar to the United States a culture of responsibility needs to be taught and that can’t always be accomplished in the classroom anyways. How does it start? Have you been reading this? J

The deficit of properly prepared youth for the real world isn’t just a Nigerien or United States problem and I think Harold Howe II an educator from Harvard accurately states that disenfranchisement of students often stems from the style of education provided.

“We suggest you sit quietly, behave yourselves, and study in the schools we provide as a holding pen until we are ready to accept you into the adult world”

Does it come to any surprise then when our children do not live up to our expectations? How can they become “our future citizens” when we cut them loose to fend for themselves without any real skills for the world? To paraphrase W.E.B. Dubois “Responsibility teaches Responsibility” how can we blame ourselves, others, and our youth for irresponsibility and the destruction of the environment when we ourselves never learned anything about it.

When it comes to learning about the world we all have an interest in the exotic species and environments but what do we know about the local? Unfortunately our education pertaining to nature is not hands-on learning. We have the national geographic channel, travel channel, PBS, and the late beloved Steve Irwin to thank for living out our adventurous sides as well as our ability to identify species. But what do we know about the world around us? Supporting this idea the Missouri Conservationist article suggest that often during a nature class dedicated to snakes children consistently can describe and identify cobra’s, boa’s pythons, etc, but when it comes to identify a local species most are clueless. Sound like you? Does this metaphorically apply else where?

The desire and interest to learn about our world is prevalent at our youngest ages. We can’t help it; this desire is the very best of our nature. Our need to explore and learn about our world needs to be reinforced but we don’t always cradle these desires. Academically, funding for geography is constantly undermined and we seem to shut off ourselves and our minds from anything else in the world.

Did you know about Niger prior to your family member or friend coming here?

It seems to me that when this disconnect emerges I think many of our societal problems surface. Everything is interconnected in the world, Humanity has been gifted with an incredibly inquisitive mind and ability to socialize so why waste it? Is this making sense or is it too far of a reach? Why is our country so reticent to learn about other cultures and environments? Or do we fail in our attempts to expand on our interests in nature due to the lack of it?

These are only my random thoughts and observations from my wanderings but as I can’t help but think about when I show pictures of home to my villagers they pick apart every detail and ask what kind of tree is that? What is kind of animal are you skinning? What kind of seeds do you plant in your garden? These are not questions that stem from simple minds; they are very intelligent observant individuals that understand quite acutely their surroundings. In my short time here the Nigerien’s have taught me so much more about their natural world and how they live in it. So when I respond “white tail deer”, “pheasant”, “catfish”, “sweet corn”, “oak”, “elm” etc, I can’t help but think of what it’s going to be like when I return home and show people pictures of Niger. What will be their questions? Do they safari? Was it dangerous? Do they walk around naked? What do they do without TV?....AAAARGGH are you kidding me?

Don’t waste your guilt or money by listening to the “oh those poor kids” late night infomercials or any other array of organizations portraying the “oh so sad” children of Africa. It’s true there are a lot of things needed here but damn it these guys are genuinely happy and consider I am in the “poorest” country in the world according to the United Nations Development Index. Doesn’t that speak volumes about the human spirit?

If you want to donate money make sure it goes to an education but use half of that money for your own. Travel!!! Or read for god’s sake.

I had to rant, sorry.

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