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The need to connect to others and our surroundings – to people, animals and the environment – is fundamental to our success as individuals and as a species. Undervaluing the importance of this need has weakened our educational system and may be crippling our children.
When we feel connected, aware of others and our surroundings, we are relaxed and ready to absorb new information; we are able to learn new things. Feeling disconnected brings us back to the mindset of the Neanderthal or some even earlier mindset dominated by the fight/flight response, where the emotional states of anxiety and fear dominated our behavioral responses. Research shows that when children or adults fail to adequately connect to the world outside their own minds, they experience more anxiety, fear, isolation and depression. If we continue on our present course of devaluing meaningful connections with other people, animals and the environment, if children continue to spend less time outside connecting to nature, less time being curious and creative, less time playing and practicing social skills, less time in classrooms connecting with their teachers and their peers in meaningful dialogue, what will our future society look like?
A 2010 study showed children spend over 53 hours a week using electronic media, and the heaviest media users were more likely to report being bored or sad; they did not get along well with their parents and were not happy at school. Dr. David Walsh claims that over-use of electronic media in children is making them “psychologically flabby,” with symptoms of distraction, disrespect, impatience, a need for instant gratification, inflated expectations, self-centeredness and rampant consumerism. In the United States, obesity, diabetes, attention disorders and depression are on the rise in children. One in every three children in the U.S. is obese. The Surgeon General reports that a child born in 2006 has a one in three chance of developing diabetes. Over half of all children live in a home with either divorce or domestic violence. Bullying in schools is the norm rather than the exception. Recess, creative arts and physical education have been reduced or cut in most school districts across the country. Reduction in recess time has been linked with increased behavioral problems and possible increases in attention disorders. The generation growing up today is the first generation that will likely have a shorter life-span than their parents.
What does connection have to do with any of this? Evolutionarily, the success of our species largely depended on our ability to be “attached.” Our ability to be attached to something outside ourselves meant we were present, attentive, attuned and responsive; able to survive because we were aware of and able to react to our environment. We learned to observe and understand animals to become better hunters. We observed and learned the cycles of nature to become expert gatherers. As we grew to understand our environment more, we become less transient, we created closely knit communities, we learned complex language, we domesticated plants and animals, and our brains grew and developed as a consequence of our relationships. This evolution gives us the brains we have today. And throughout the fields of psychology and neuroscience, research continues to show us that we are wired to be attached: Positive brain growth and development require attachment or connection in order to integrate our more primitive emotional brains to our higher-level thinking. In order to feel whole, people need to understand their “self” in relationship to “other.”
Despite what research tells us and in spite of teachers’ and parents’ intuitive desire for children to be present, attentive, attuned and responsive, educational programs that promote connections and nurture social and emotional learning are not as highly valued as those that increase test scores. This, despite the reality that if a child is not ready to learn – if a child does not have their social and emotional needs met – it is unlikely anyone will have much of an impact on their test scores, not to mention the fact that increasing standardized test scores bears no correlation to the qualities people need to be successful by any measure. In today’s economy, employers seek people who are confident, empathetic, creative, entrepreneurial, curious and passionate. These are the qualities people need to start new enterprises, solve complex problems, interact well with others and achieve their full potential. Developing these qualities requires connecting with peers, teachers and parents in relevant and meaningful ways to practice self-reflection, self-regulation, critical thinking and moral reasoning.
The “Social and Emotional Learning,” “Whole Child,” and “No Child Left Inside” movements and various programs, such as the RedRover Readers, are trying to fill the connection gap left by an overuse of electronic media, an overemphasis on academic test scores and a lack of adequate opportunities for children to discuss relational dilemmas and practice moral reasoning. But these movements and programs face a political monolith that is slow to change and unable to completely admit that the “No Child Left Behind” (NCLB) Act has not only failed – it threatens to destroy the very traits that has made United States a leader in entrepreneurialism. The focus on test scores epitomizes a system that has become overly rigid, especially given the obvious “side effects” that come with teaching to the test and the fact that as a country’s test scores increase, its economic performance, rate of growth, democracy index, quality of life and creativity (as measured by number of patents) actually decrease.
How You Can Help:
1. If you have children in your life, help them set limits on their use of electronic media and support them in building strong relationships with people, animals and the environment. Take them on walks in nature, teach them how to “listen” to animals, ask them questions about their experiences and what they observe around them, share books and ask questions that encourage perspective taking.
2. Contact your legislator and encourage her or his support of the “No Child Left Inside” Act, S. 1372 and H.R. 2547 (instead of the “No Child Left Behind” Act) and the “Academic, Social and Emotional Learning” Act, H.R.2437.
3. Ask the schools or teachers in your community how they meet the social and emotional needs of their students. If they’re open to suggestions, encourage the integration of social and emotional learning into the classroom, as well as environmental and humane education, especially programs that ask kids what they think: programs that promote creativity, imagination, empathy, listening, self-reflection, storytelling and critical thinking.
4. Share this article with others.
5. Share information about the RedRover Readers program.
6. Become a RedRover Readers volunteer or sign up for RedRover email to learn more ways you can help children strengthen their understanding and sense of connection with animals and develop social skills, such as perspective taking, empathy and moral reasoning.
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Faber Taylor, A., Kuo, F.E., and Sullivan, W.C. 2001. Coping with ADD: The surprising connection to green play settings. Environment and Behavior, 33(1), 54-77.
Kochlar-Bryant, C. and Heishman, A. 2012. Effective Collaboration: Reframing Social Responsibility for Educating the Whole Child. Learning and the Brain Conference, San Francisco.
Lewin, T. If your kids are awake, they’re probably online, January 20, 2010. The New York Times. https://www.nytimes.com/2010/01/20/education/20wired.html
Ludwig D.S. 2007. Childhood Obesity – the shape of things to come. New England Journal of Medicine, 357(23), 2325-7.
Olshansky, S.J. 2005. A Potential Decline in Life Expectancy in the United States in the 21st Century. New England Journal of Medicine, 352(11), 1138-1145.
Zhao, Y. 2009. Catching Up or Leading the Way: American Education in the Age of Globalization. Alexandria, VA: ASCD.