Heike Freire


"Nature is full of examples that teach values."

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The main reason I have found to defend contact with nature is that human beings have emerged from this natural environment, which is the biosphere, since the beginning of time. Therefore, the human organism is perfectly adapted, balanced and designed to develop within this environment, as it has done over hundreds of millions of years. Over time, our culture has evolved and changed and we have become increasingly more urban and reliant on technology. The environment in which a child grows up nowadays doesn't have much in common with the environment in which children grew up 40 or 50 years ago. However, our species is not going to be able adapt to phenomena such as climate change.

There was a study by the University of Do Minho in Portugal, which showed that children between 4 and 12 years old spent 76% of their time sitting or lying down in enclosed spaces. They don't move. Our bodies have fundamental physiological needs. We need to be aware of the direction we're heading in. A great deal of a child's development comes through movement. That's why we talk about psychomotor skills, because movement is a really important element that helps us to develop areas such as our senses, spacial awareness, bodies and physical strength. Unfortunately, nowadays children don't have enough opportunities to move around, specifically as regards playing and doing activities in the fresh air. Because it's restricting to try to do these things in an enclosed space.

Educational strategies based on contact with nature

We can work on that contact with nature in our homes, if we have plants or animals. You should look at how you interact with them. We often forget that animals are sentient beings just like us. We treat them like objects and think we're much more important than they are. However, children have a love for life and therefore relate to animals as equals. In order to get closer to nature, you can make your home more open to the environment. You can also encourage birds to visit by creating spaces for them to make nests and by leaving food out for them to eat. There are also many things you can do inside the home.

Parks with completely synthetic floors and very few areas for play are not suitable for children. A child needs to touch, smell and get dirty. If your child has never come home dirty, it means they've not been able to play properly and therefore, have not been able to develop attributes such as sensitivity, intelligence and numerous other areas. Sometimes, we forget that children need to get dirty. I often wonder, when we have washing machines, why are people so bothered about children getting dirty? If children don't get in a mess, it means they haven't been playing properly and therefore haven't developed sufficiently. Getting dirty is of great value to children, as it stimulates the skin, which is in direct contact with the brain as they share the same epithelium. Getting in a mess also stimulates a child's senses, motor skills and perception of themselves (among other things). Therefore, they really need to mess up their clothes from time to time. With this in mind, it's perhaps a good idea to join together with a small group of people to create a place where children can go when they're really small to play around with a bit of sand, water and a few other things; they really don't need very much. However, what they do need is to be able to touch and create things, move around and interact with each other. That is extremely important.

Teachers are sometimes reluctant to let children loose in open spaces so they can come into contact with nature. However, once they've taken this step and have learned a few strategies, they quickly realize how much easier it makes their lives. Because when children are in the open air or the natural environment, they do not do many of the behaviors that are completely unsuitable; they are much more relaxed, collaborative, they have much less conflict...and that is very encouraging for hard work.

In nature there are countless opportunities for motivation and learning. Yet, we tend to focus on cognitive skills and forget about sensory and emotional experiences. Some people say that children are developing disorders due to a lack of contact with nature. However, I would say that the current situation is making them develop in a more, let's say, 'complicated' way.

Heike Freire holds a degree in Psychology and Philosophy from the University of Paris X Nanterre, and has been an adviser to French Government's Institute of Permanent Education in Paris. The teacher is one of the world's leading figures in what is known as "Green Teaching," a method that seeks to educate through contact with nature. and has written several books, including 'Green Education. Ideas to bring children close to nature' and '‘¡Estate quieto y atiende!’ (Be quiet and pay attention).