Do we need another film about connecting children to nature? There’s Play Again, Nature Kids, Project Wild Thing, The Land, and some others I am sure. Will yet another film lead us in the direction we hope for our kids? Each film has its focus that makes viewing them and sharing about them a worthy effort. The award-winning film NaturePlay – Take Childhood Back (Facebook/Twitter) is no different. It not only lays out the problem, but shows (in such a beautiful way) its viewers the trail that must be explored to make changes to our education system in the US. And that trail leads us across the Atlantic to Denmark.
NaturePlay – Take Childhood Back (Directed and Produced by Aimee Stilling along with Co-Director and Cinematographer Daniel Stilling) looks at the Danish method of education called udeskole (“outdoor school”) which follows from their philosophy of friluftsliv (“outdoor life”), by following teachers and children at one such school in Lejre, west of Copenhagen. They differ from schools in the US mostly in two ways: their students spend much of their school day outside; and their students are not spending ever-increasing amounts of time preparing for standardized exams (a data-driven business-model of education that runs U.S. schools). Children in these Danish schools, even preschoolers, do activities regularly that I imagine many U.S. parents would not approve of, such as using fire and carving with knives. But for udeskole, these are necessary skills that teachers feel that their students must not just learn but become used to. Gardening, caring for animals, cooking, exploring along creeks and in the woods, climbing trees, building things with hammers, saws, and nails.
This does not sound like U.S. public education at all. While gardening in U.S. public schools has grown (haha), most of these other activities are skills that students might be lucky enough to do once a school year (perhaps on a field trip). In Denmark and other Scandinavian countries, students partake in such activities everyday – they are the norm. And it is through play that students are learning. As some of the teachers interviewed in the film related, students learn best when instruction about a particular topic can be attached to an interactive experience. Will a student learn about a creek ecosystem better by reading a lesson in a textbook or by visiting a creek and using nets to explore what lives there? It’s an obvious answer, yet it’s harder to provide data to school administrators from field trips than it is to provide data from in-class worksheets and tests. This is how U.S. education works. Yet the film shows the Education Minister of Denmark from 2011-2015 discussing the importance of students being allowed to spend more time outside. Imagine the U.S. Secretary of Education advocating for more time in nature and more time for recess as well as de-emphasizing the current standardized testing model. A sea change is needed…
Rather than discuss the negatives of the U.S. school system, the films spends the bulk of its time learning the benefits of the Danish method, from teachers, school administrators, and udeskole researchers. And parents. While the teachers share about how their students are learning when outside, it’s the parents who get across the overall, whole-child benefit of nature time for their kids, especially those who have their kids in every-season and less-strict forest kindergartens that spend all their time outside and go home dirty – every day.
Toward the end of the film, some of the health risks of not playing outside (largely obesity and attention deficit disorders, but also myopia and asthma or allergies) are compared to the risks of playing outside (cuts, broken bones, other injuries, sunburns, etc.). Cuts heal, bones grow back together, and sunburns fade. The health risks of a sedentary, sit-in-the-chair for eight hours a day lifestyle are longer lasting.
Following this, the film then ends by suggesting a call to action to move the U.S. education model away from test preparation and instead heading back outside. More recess, more instruction out in nature, more school gardens, more playgrounds with natural materials, and more freedom for children to explore their interests.
There is no reason for the wheel to be reinvented – NaturePlay – Take Childhood Back shows a model that is working. The filmmakers are designating September as the Global Screenings “Back to School” Launch in order to push collaborative discussion on the issues the film raises. NaturePlay – Taking Childhood Back is only viewable through screenings, so if you, or any individual, school, group, or organization you are connected with would be interested in setting up a screening in their area, check out this page.
And one last thing to mention about the film – it’s simply beautiful. The cinematography is gorgeous. It would be amazing if just positive images of children playing in nature would be enough to convince the powers that be in education to change our ways.