A popular interview with Simon Sinek, acclaimed author and motivational speaker, has sparked conversations around this very topic. He talks about the dangers of social media consumption and the impact on our brains from the dopamine release when our phone pings.
Simply put, it’s no secret that we are addicted to our phones.
Now that significant research in this area is becoming more widespread, the links between our phone usage and increases in depression and low self-esteem are being documented at record pace. Emerging studies have begun to indicate that high levels of engagement with phones, screens, and varying technology may actually be physically changing how our brains function. The worrisome issue is that the same negative links to stress, anxiety and depression are showing up in children at younger and younger ages.
With the infusion of technology in schools, there’s healthy debate about the amount of technology and finding the right balance.
One way we balance it here at Powhatan School is through our NEAL program (Nature-Enhanced Approach to Learning) and getting children outside to learn and play.
The Nature Pill
It is important to get children outside in nature.
There is significant research coming to the forefront centered around the positive effects on our bodies and being outside. A fascinating study out of Aarhaus University in Denmark tracks one million individuals over almost three decades. While it focuses on the connection between health and nature with people at various ages, it zeroes in on the impact that the amount of time children spend in nature has on human development over time.
This research led to a deep conversation between Mrs. Coutts and Mrs. Scarborough last year as they talked about Earth Week activities across our campus community. One of the articles Mrs. Coutts cites is entitled “Stressed out by office life? This scientist prescribes ‘Nature Pills’ in the magazine Fast Company. The article goes on to outline the research indicating that even short bursts of daily exposure to nature positively impacts our stress levels and well being. Take the time to listen to the podcast conversation below as Mrs. Coutts and Mrs. Scarborough talk about nature and its effects on stress, mental health, and well being.
At Powhatan School we use an approach called Nature Enhanced Approach to Learning (NEAL). NEAL is a lens through which we can teach any or all components of our curriculum. We use it to bring our students outside into the natural world and to bring the natural world indoors to our students.
Some may have the impression that NEAL is an “add-on” to our science curriculum or an outdoor education unit in our physical education program. Although both are good assumptions, NEAL (Nature Enhanced Approach to Learning) is far more unique and important than a unit or special trip. It is one of the many ways a Powhatan education is set apart from curriculums at other schools.
The Crocker Conservancy is a phenomenal asset to campus and allows students to learn in an engaging, real world manner. It gives us a perfect opportunity to bring in experts in the field to share their knowledge and passion for learning about the environment with our students.
– Mrs. Coutts, Lower School Science Teacher and NEAL Coordinator
Teachers create lessons that utilize nature to supplement classroom materials in order to engage the students. Lessons are designed to incorporate nature, regardless of the subject. The cross-curricular opportunities are abundant. It might be a field trip that combines language arts and survival skills taken directly from the novel Hatchet. Or an art and history collaboration that uses wild grasses from the meadow to construct ancient Mashuf boats.
Guest speakers and scientists are hallmarks of the program. They work directly with the children in a real-world setting. For example, the ability to learn about the Wetlands in a hands-on activity with guest scientists makes for a truly meaningful experience.
Students have easy access to the outdoors here at Powhatan, including the addition of the Crocker Conservancy, to map trails, read or write nature poems, adopt trees and square meters for observation of changes, record data in journals, run and walk the trails, and raise trout for release in the stream.
Award Winning Faculty
In December of 2018 Mrs. Coutts, Lower School Science Teacher and NEAL Coordinator, was honored as the Virginia Conservation Education Teacher of the Year Award in Elementary Education.
Mrs. Coutts has a passion for nature study. She connects with her students by designing lessons that capture their interest, motivating them to question and creatively problem solve. Her lessons are hands-on and lab-based or field-based so students feel that they are real scientists while in her class. She invites resource specialists to her classes to speak to students about their work and area of expertise. Her goal is to make learning “real” for her students. Mrs. Coutts was recognized at the LFSWCD Annual Awards banquet on November 8, 2018 at Kernstown Battlefield and at the VASWCD Annual Meeting in Roanoke, Virginia on December 3, 2018.
The Crocker Conservancy
We are continually using the lens of NEAL as we create, amend, and reflect upon our curriculum. The Crocker Conservancy adds a whole new dimension to the scope of the NEAL program, allowing for the 47 acres directly behind the school to become an outdoor laboratory for hands-on experiential learning.
The Crocker Conservancy is made up of the 47-acres located in the back of our campus. There are three main habitats on the Crocker Conservancy, including a wetland habitat, warm season grass and wild flower meadow and hardwood forests. Each unique learning space offers real-world opportunities for students to learn and discover.
An example of a NEAL activity on the Crocker Conservancy is this fourth grade project focused on native and invasive plants in and around the meadow:
We are big fans of Richard Louv’s bestseller Last Child in the Woods. What Louv has coined as ‘Nature-Deficit Disorder’ is indeed very real. “The NEAL program helps to offset the amount of screen time in children’s lives,” says Mrs. Scarborough, the Head of School. “While there’s no doubt the new technologies on campus – such as Virtual Reality and Augmented Reality – are exciting and engaging for students, I think we have the right balance. I think we do a great job of getting children outside in nature while creating meaningful, hands-on and highly engaging learning opportunities through NEAL. I love it.”