Rural students have always had a wealth of field experiences. That has made them easy to teach in biology class. Mention squirrels burying walnuts, or hawks capturing mice, and they know what you mean. Rural students have been a great source of wildlife scientists and fish researchers and other field scientists. But that is changing.
Even though students in rural schools still dress in flannel and denim, not all of them have the outdoors experiences you expect. Today, you can drive a new tractor into the field, circle the edge, and this will direct a computer program to perfectly plow or disc the field. The “driver” is only needed in case it gets mired in a mud hole. Enclosed in a cab and with earphones for downloaded music, a farm kid easily misses the rabbits and foxes and ragweed. They are not really “in” the field anymore.
And science teachers in many rural schools are noticing the puzzled looks they get when they describe squirrels burying nuts or quail flying from nests. I tell my colleagues to ask benchmark questions such as “How many flowers can you name?” And the result has been a drop from several dozen a decade ago, to just a few today. There are still many country kids left in Kansas. But today more and more rural students are no more comfortable in the field than our city kids.
And it is not just recognition of meadowlarks and honeybees and other common wildlife that is being lost. There are a lot of lessons about real consequences that are only learned by working in the field. If a wagon breaks down and you don’t fix it properly—the bailing wire breaks—you learn that the real world is a hard teacher. Getting the job done is a real test that provides a real sense of accomplishment. No amount of M&Ms or gold stars in a teacher’s grade book provide quite the same motivation as making things work in the real world.
This rapid decline in nature experiences is detailed in the book “Last Child in the Woods: Saving Our Children from Nature-Deficit Disorder” by author Richard Louv. With a childhood in Independence, Missouri, Louv returns to suburban Overland Park, Kansas for one of the first interviews in his book. He writes of a mother who orders her kids—who are complaining about being bored—to go out and spend two hours in the backyard fields. They begrudgingly go, to come back much later, excited at having discovered nature for the first time. The next day, the mother again suggests they go play in the field. “No,” the children reply. They already “did that.”
This change, this failure to go out into the field, corresponds with the recent rise of electronics. Louv documents in his book the major shift in experiences between the 1946-to-1964 generation who played outdoors, and the current generation who mostly do not.
While Louv focuses on the social consequences of isolating children from nature, I am concerned with our source of future field scientists. While speaking at a regional meeting of scientists who study insects, I asked how many became excited and entered our field from: Reading books? None! Watching television documentaries? None! Having a great teacher? None!
How many became entomologists from collecting in the field? All hands went up.
Where will our next generation of field biologists come from?
Education leaders warn of the “digital divide”–an inequality between those who have computers and those who do not (whom we assume will be left behind). They overlook that children immersed in computers and video games and television no longer have basic experiences that are vital to a healthy and creative life. In the “digital divide,” it is the children with digital toys who are left without an understanding of the natural world and the maturity that comes with facing real consequences.
Under No Child Left Behind, our schools are locked down for test preparation, and field trips have declined dramatically. If we are to preserve some field-experienced children, it is up to parents to take them on field vacations and promote 4-H and Boy and Girl Scouting.
The coasts and suburbs may have seen the “last child in the woods,” but here in Kansas, we have not reached the point of the “last child in the prairie.” Not yet.
John Richard Schrock trains biology teachers and lives in Emporia, KS.