Boothe Prize Essays 2012-2013

Boothe Prize Essays 2012-2013


spring 2012 HOnOrABLE MEnTiOn

Charlotte Geaghan-Breiner INSTRUCTOR’S FOREWORD

“Where the Wild Things Should Be: Healing Nature Deficit Disorder Through the Schoolyard” is a research-based proposal for action. Charlotte’s essay provides an original solution to a problem first defined by journalist Richard Louv in 2008: nature deficit disorder posits that many children of the developed world are alienated from nature. The documented results of this disorder can be dire and include poor health, including depression, obesity, and diminished cognitive capacity; impoverished ecological knowledge; and limited engagement with environmental activism. To mitigate this disorder, Charlotte proposes a transformation of the schoolyard, a space foundational to global childhood and one commonly recognized as an asphalt desert. Designed with adult needs in mind, schoolyards today are equipment dominated to allow children to “blow off steam” and hard scaped to facilitate monitoring.

Writing with confidence and imagination, and drawing on extensive reading in geography, science education, and biology, Charlotte envisions the schoolyard as a child-centered space in which environmental learning might occur. She proposes four tenets of Natural Schoolyard Design: integration of biodiversity, sensory stimulation, diversity of topography, and “loose parts”—such as sand, water, stones, leaves and sticks, which permit children to play inventively. Out of hardscapes, her essay urges, we might develop vibrant, engaging, natural environments. Her argument provocatively questions the opposition between nature and culture, demonstrating that man-made spaces such as the schoolyard can provide children crucial access to nature.

—Sarah Pittock

Where the Wild Things Should Be: Healing Nature Deficit Disorder through the Schoolyard

Charlotte geaghan-Breiner

The developed world deprives children of a basic and inalienable right: unstructured outdoor play. Children today have substantially less access to nature, less free range, and less time for independent play than previous generations had. Experts in a wide variety of fields cite the rise of technology, urbanization, parental over-scheduling, fears of stranger-danger, and increased traffic as culprits. Even the environmental education movement is to blame, some argue, because it prioritizes abstraction over direct experiences in nearby nature. A growing body of research from the United States, United Kingdom, Mexico, Germany, Canada, Australia, Norway, Japan, and Spain has confirmed that this trend is a legitimate and pervasive phenomenon, though varied in scope and degree.

In 2008 journalist Richard Louv articulated the causes and consequences of children’s alienation from nature, dubbing it “nature deficit disorder.” Louv is not alone in claiming that the widening divide between children and nature has distressing health repercussions, from obesity and attention disorders to depression and decreased cognitive functioning. Its implications for the future of the environment are equally disturbing. “What is the extinction of a condor,” asks naturalist Robert Pyle, “to a child who has never seen a wren?” (147). The dialogue surrounding nature deficit disorder deserves the attention and action of educators, health professionals, parents, developers, environmentalists, and conservationists alike.

This staggering rift between children and nature is not insurmountable. Experts have proposed solutions at the level of family and nation. The most practical and the most feasible solution offered, and the one on which this paper will center, involves

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the schoolyard. The schoolyard habitat movement, which promotes the “greening” of school grounds, is quickly gaining international recognition and legitimacy. A host of organizations, including the National Wildlife Federation, American Forest Foundation, Council for Environmental Education, Britain-based Learning through Landscapes, Canadian-based Evergreen, and Swedish-based Skolans Uterum, have committed themselves to this express cause. However, while many recognize the need for “greened school grounds,” not many describe such landscapes beyond using adjectives such as “lush,” “green,” and “natural.” The literature thus lacks a coherent research-based proposal that both asserts the power of “natural” school grounds and delineates what such grounds might look like.

My research strives to fill in this gap. I establish a theoretical framework for dealing with children’s geography, advocate for the schoolyard as the perfect place to address nature deficit disorder, demonstrate the benefits of greened schoolyards, and establish the tenets of natural schoolyard design in order to further the movement and inspire future action.


Nature is a term notoriously difficult to define but essential for the purposes of this discussion. A common definition of nature can be found in the Cambridge Dictionary: “All the animals, plants, rocks, etc. in the world and all the features, forces and processes that happen or exist independently of people, such as the weather, the sea, mountains, reproduction and growth” (“Nature”). The Cambridge Dictionary reflects a widespread understanding of nature, which holds terrain even minimally designed by humans as inherently “unnatural.” This definition fails to account for the nature present in environments that have been influenced by humankind, such as national parks, farms, and preserves. A better approach would be to view all geographies upon a continuum of human design, from the untouched wild to the highly landscaped (Carver, Evans, and Fritz 25). My argument will rest on the assumption that nature, as the Cambridge Dictionary defines it, can be integrated into human-designed environments such as the schoolyard; human intervention and nature are not mutually exclusive.

Another assumption central to this research concerns biophilia, or our inherent affinity for living things. Since E.O. Wilson put forth his biophilia hypothesis in 1984, numerous studies have corroborated his claim: our evolutionary heritage has instilled

within us the desire to connect with other forms of life. This affinity for nature is especially visible in children. Children have been shown to prefer natural settings for their play.

Furthermore, their behavior in nature, such as seeking shelters and hideaways, is shaped by innate primal instincts (Heerwagon and Orians 52). Nature thus exerts a special psychological pull on children that must be nurtured and encouraged for healthy development.

A useful schema of children’s engagement with the natural world is proposed by architect Louise Chawla in her article “Learning to Love the Natural World Enough to Protect It” (see fig. 1). Through encounters with the environment, children progress in cycles of increasing competence and environmental knowledge (Chawla 69). Chawla’s cyclical model, when combined with Wilson’s biophilia hypothesis, highlights the indispensable role nature plays, or should play, in childhood.

Any study of children and nature will inevitably overlap with ecological psychology, or the study of the relationship between individuals and their environment. The concept of affordances, a fundamental of ecological psychology, sheds light on the relationship between children and their geography. In 1979 psychologist James Gibson defined affordances as the “action possibilities” of an environment: in other words, what the environment offers the individual (127). A tree stump, for example,

Fig. 1: Children progress in “positive interactive cycle” with the environment (Chawla 69).

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might afford seating for a child, but only if it is free of splinters and the right height for that child’s body. The affordance of that tree stump depends on both the stump and the child. A school ground that meets the needs of its children must provide a diverse variety of affordances; thus it must be designed with children in mind.

The model of children as both subjects and agents of their geographies will inform my research (Matthews and Limb 68). While children do exert a measure of power and control over their environments, their agency is limited. For example, a child cannot single-handedly transform a concrete lot into a grassy knoll. Children are, to a certain extent, subjects of their geographies and the society that defines what those geographies might be. In a 1987 study of children’s place and behavior, Paul Gump coined the term “setting coercivity” to convey the profound influence that an ecological setting exerts on a child’s actions. A number of other studies have shown that the nature of the schoolyard shapes the nature of play (Titman; Moore, “Before and After Asphalt”; Moore and Wong). The schoolyard is therefore a land rife with potential, with the power to facilitate children’s free play in nature. Schoolyard design must acknowledge children’s dual role as both subjects and agents by providing the raw materials for natural play; children will then manipulate these materials as agents to suit their needs.


As a formative geography of childhood, the schoolyard serves as the perfect place to address nature deficit disorder. Historian Peter Stearns argues that modern childhood was transformed when schooling replaced work as the child’s main social function (1041). In this contemporary context, the schoolyard emerges as a critical setting for children’s learning and play. The school playground, according to British psychologist Peter Blatchford, is a child-empowering geography. “Breaktime is one of the few occasions,” he explains, “when [children’s] play and social relations are more their own” (Blatchford 58). As parental traffic and safety concerns increasingly constrain children’s free range outside of school, the schoolyard remains a safe haven, a protected outdoor space just for children.

Despite the schoolyard’s major significance in children’s lives, the vast majority of schoolyards fail to meet children’s needs. An outdated theoretical framework is partially to blame. In his 1890 Principles of Psychology, psychologist Herbert Spencer championed the “surplus energy theory”: play’s primary function, according to

Spencer, was to burn off extra energy (White). Play, however, contributes to the social, cognitive, emotional, and physical growth of the child (Hart, “Containing Children” 136); “[l]etting off steam” is only one of play’s myriad functions. Spencer’s theory thus constitutes a serious oversimplification, but it still continues to inform the design of children’s play areas.

Most US playgrounds conform to an abiotic equipment-based model constructed implicitly on Spencer’s surplus energy theory (Frost and Klein 2). These play areas feature sports fields, asphalt courts, swing sets, and jungle gyms; they relegate nature to the sidelines. The standardized playground so prevalent in the US drastically limits children, prioritizing gross motor play at the expense of dramatic play or exploration. An eight-year-old in England says it best: “Tarmac and concrete is boring, like seeing a film ten times” (Titman 44). Another points out, “The space outside feels boring. There’s nothing to do. you get bored with just a square of tarmac” (Titman 42). Such an environment does not afford children the chance to graduate to new, more complex challenges as they develop (see Chawla’s model of child-environment interactions, fig. 1). While play equipment still deserves a spot in the schoolyard, equipment-dominated playscapes leave the growing child bereft of stimulating, novel interactions with the environment.

Also to blame for the failure of school grounds to meet children’s needs are educators’ and developers’ adult-centric aims. Schulman and Peters’s GIS analysis of urban schoolyard landcover in Baltimore, Boston, and Detroit affirms quantitatively what many already know: urban schoolyards are sterile environments with inadequate tree canopy and low biodiversity, dominated by synthetic landcovers such as tarmac, asphalt, and turf grass (Schulman and Peters 65; see fig. 2). While these landcovers may be more conducive to maintenance and supervision, they exacerbate the “extinction of experience,” a term that Pyle has used to describe the disappearance of children’s embodied, intuitive experiences in nature. Asphalt deserts are major instigators of this “cycle of impoverishment” (Pyle 312). Loss of biodiversity begets environmental apathy, which in turn allows the process of extinction to persist; deep alienation from nature ensues.

Furthermore, adults’ preference for manicured, landscaped grounds does little to enhance children’s creative outdoor play. Instead, as Australian geographers Malone and Tranter point out, “By over-designing and regulating schoolgrounds, schools are designing out the capacity for children to engage in natural environmental learning” (Malone and Tranter). Such highly ordered schoolyards are constructed with adults’

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