A Reflection on the Importance of Nature: Dom Dongilli

Unsurprising to most, elementary and middle school aged Dominic had interests and activities that fell on the unique end of the spectrum. I opted for writing seminars at the local art museum and city libraries in lieu of traditional summer camp. I was more concerned with gardening, studio art lessons and playing piano than video games. I read in my tree fort, caught lightening bugs with my sister and volunteered at my neighborhood library instead of attending school social events. I was a solitary child who preferred my own company and made little effort to form connections and friendships with my peers. In the sixth grade, I decided to fill some of the free time participating in my local zoo’s youth volunteer program.

I ended up spending every Monday of my summer vacation and many weekends for the next 5 years at the zoo working with a wonderful collection of animals and an even greater group of people. More importantly, I finally started coming out of my shell and connecting with my peers. The zoo and the nature it hosted gave me part ownership and responsibility for the natural world around me. In addition to showering me with benefits, I finally had a message to share with others, a message of conservation and love of nature. I formed and developed relationships with my fellow youth volunteers, little kid campers, and nursing home resident over Nancy the sloth’s once-a-week bathroom schedule and Jackson Brown the skink’s blue tongue. Outside of the zoo, time in nature provided me instant relief and a sense of calm when my worrisome personality blossomed into an anxiety disorder and I struggled to complete mundane tasks. Nature and the environment has played a crucial role in my life and I’ve made it a point to do all I can to share it with others. I’ve been inspired to share the same opportunities that I have had in nature and help others reap its benefits.

I’ve been blessed to continue my work at my local zoo, which allows me to share this love of nature and see its impact on others. I’ve seen nature work its magic as I’ve conducted “sensory safaris” for children with disabilities and countless summer camps with preschoolers, high schoolers and all ages in between. I’ve also witnessed nature’s ability to serve as a bridge between cultures and languages when I spoke to a group of immigrant women from Africa participating in a program that helps immigrant women run childcare centers in their local communities. This program ensures that immigrant communities have safe and licensed childcare centers that operate with the trust of the community and full knowledge of cultural and community practices. Even though most of these women did not speak English, we spent an afternoon enjoying the benefits of nature and discussing (via translator) how nature and backyard experiences can create wondrous opportunities for themselves and the children for which they care.

Unfortunately, opportunities to experience nature and reap its benefits are disappearing or being disregarded. Children and families are spending less and less time outdoors and are not taking advantage of opportunities for natural interaction and exploration. Richard Louv, in his international best-seller Last Child in the Woods addresses these problems. He synthesizes research from a multitude of disciplines to explain our current cultural disconnect with nature and why we are suffering as a result. (Some staggering excerpts from his book are listed below)

The great thing about natural play and our relationship with the environment is that it permeates all areas of our lives and has the potential to make a profound impact no matter one’s struggles. Nursing homes have raised garden beds and adaptive gardening equipment so that their residents have opportunities to interact with nature. Rehabilitation hospitals provide patients with all types of permanent disabilities equipment so that they can continue to participate in the natural activities that they enjoy. Shelters can provide green spaces and natural play areas on their campuses so that their adult and child residents have another tool to cope with the stress and burden of poverty and homelessness. There are limitless opportunities in which one can experience nature. I encourage you all to think about the impact that nature can make in your lives, the lives of those you serve and how you can use it as a tool for positive change in your field of study and line of work.

Excerpts from Last Child in the Woods, by Richard Louv:

– “Another emerging body of scientific evidence indicates that direct exposure to nature is essential for physical and emotional health. For example, new studies suggest that exposure to nature may reduce the symptoms of Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD), and that it can improve all children’s cognitive abilities and resistance to negative stresses and depression.”

– A study was conducted with at-risk sixth grade students who attended outdoor education programs over a several month period. “Students who experienced the outdoor education program versus those in a control group… displayed a 27 percent increase in measured mastery of science concepts; enhanced cooperation and conflict resolution skills; gains in self-esteem, problem-solving, motivation to learn, and classroom behavior.”

– “Children who experience school grounds with diverse natural settings are more physically active, more aware of nutrition, more civil to one another, and more creative.”

– “A study shows that children and parents who live in places that allow for outdoor access have twice as many friends as those who have restricted outdoor access due to traffic.”

– “Nancy Wells, assistant professor in the New York State College of Human Ecology at Cornell and her colleague Gary Evans found that children with more nature near their homes received lower ratings than peers with less nature than their homes on measures of behavioral conduct disorders, anxiety and depression.”

List of Resources

Last Child in the Woods, by Richard Louv
A captivating read that synthesizes research from many different fields to explain and solidify the importance of nature on the health of children, adults and communities.

Children & Nature Network, http://www.childrenandnature.org/
Website of the network Richard Louv founded. Contains reading lists as well as recent research articles regarding children and nature.

The Sierra Club, http://www.sierraclub.org/
In addition to promoting environmental stewardship, the Sierra Club hosts outdoor outings coordinated by local chapters. They also run a campaign called “Building Bridges to the Outdoors” where they strive to give every child in America an outdoor experience.

Nature Explore, http://www.natureexplore.org/
A collaboration between Nebraska’s own Arbor Day Foundation and Dimensions Educational Research Foundation, this website contains resources, research and supplies for connecting children with nature.

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