STATE OF OPPORTUNITY. Can Kids in Michigan Get Ahead?
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This special reporting project wrapped up in May 2017. Read more.

One school's fight against 'nature deficit disorder'

Think back to when you were a kid, and how much time you spent playing outside. Maybe you wandered the neighborhood until the streetlights came on. Or built tree forts. Or explored a nearby field, or creek, or woods.

Now, think about the kids on your block – or in your house – and how much time you see them exploring the neighborhood. Without their cell phones.

Some advocates of unstructured outdoor play say far too few kids are doing that these days. They have a name for it: “nature deficit disorder,” and point to a growing body of research that links too much indoor time with problems including obesity, attention deficit disorder, and depression.

But some programs are working to get kids outside, including CA Frost Environmental Sciences Academy in Grand Rapids. It's a K-8 school that abuts the BlandfordNature Centeron the city's west side.

"A place to be still"

“What this school provides to children is a place where they can breathe, where they can notice and observe, where they can question, where they can be still,” said Pam Wells-Marcusse. She was the school's principal for 18 years. Wells-Marcusse is retired now, but she still fills in as a part-time administrator.

CA Frost became an environmental "theme" school about a decade ago, taking advantage of its location and establishing "E-lab" classes that students in every grade attend twice a week.

On a beautiful fall day last week, E-lab teacher Mary Lewandowski had a group of sixth graders out at a retention pond in back of the school, where students conducted soil tests and recorded observations about flora and fauna.

“Does it stick together?” Lewandowski asks a group of kids tasked with identifying the soil type from a sample dredged from the bottom of the pond. “Who wants to pick up some and roll it in their hands…. Does it feel smooth? It’s really smooth, it doesn’t stick together, so it’s got a lot of what in it?"

“Silt,” one student answers.

“Good,” Lewandoski says. “Mostly silt, right? Write it down.”

Valuing nature in education

In some ways, this school is special, with its spot right next to a nature preserve. Teachers can take kids on hikes that feel like they’re far from the city – when in fact, they’re not.

But in other ways, it’s just an ordinary urban public school. Kids don’t have to test to get in. Close to two-thirds of students get free or reduced lunch. And the fact that this school is open to any student in Grand Rapids was important to former principal Pam Wells-Marcusse. She says for a lot of kids, it’s a refuge.

“We have many students where it’s not that they don’t want to be outside, but it’s not safe to go around the block, play in parks, go in fields, hang around,” she says. “So they need to have opportunities to be able to do that.”

Richard Louv is the person who came up with the term “nature deficit disorder,” and wrote about it in his 2005 book, “Last Child in the Woods.” Louv says schools have helped contribute to the problem.

“Education itself has devalued nature,” Louv says. “Many schools have canceled recess, PE has been cut, field trips in many schools are a thing of the past… there’s a long list of barriers.”

Academics, yes - but also wonder and surprise

There’s a freewheeling element to the kind of teaching that goes on at CA Frost. Teachers have to teach what the curriculum says students need to know, and what they’ll be tested on. And that can compete with fostering a sense of wonder about nature, and getting kids to pay attention to their surroundings.

As Greg Petersen was out with a group of third graders teaching them about the purpose of seeds and fruits, a Cooper’s hawk suddenly came into view.

“Hey friends, look at this special kind of hawk,” Petersen said, pointing at the sky. “That’s a Cooper’s hawk. I can’t believe this view we’re getting. Look at this!”

But the school seems to be doing something right. CA Frost out-performs the district on the state standardized test,  in most grades and subjects by a wide margin.

And the school may well be setting them up for a love of the outdoors they can take with them the rest of their lives.

“Nature is full of surprises,” Petersen says, before heading into the woods in search of the Cooper’s hawk.