Heike Freire


"Nature is full of examples that teach values."

Educational strategies based on contact with nature

The main argument I have found in defense of being in contact with nature is that humans first emerged from the natural environment of the biosphere. 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.

A study performed by the Universidade Do Minho (University of Minho) in Portugal showed that children between the ages of 4 and 12 spend 76% of their time sitting or lying down inside. 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.

It's possible to focus on being in contact with nature at home if you have plants or pets. 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. Children need to touch and smell things 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. This is because much of the unsuitable behavior children display indoors disappears when they're in the open air or a natural environment, because they become much more relaxed and collaborative, which means they have fewer conflicts, and this makes a teacher's work much easier.

Nature offers numerous motivational and learning opportunities. 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.

More on Heike Freire

Heike Freire has a Degree in Psychology and Philosophy from the Université Paris X Nanterre (Paris X Nanterre University) and has worked as an adviser for the French government's 'Centre de Formation Permanente' (Center for Continuous Learning) in Paris. Ms. Freire is one of the world's leading authorities in what is known as 'green learning', which 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).
What effect might the proliferation of screens have on our children in the long term?

it's having a very negative effect. There's a very big problem. Furthermore, unlike in other countries, in this country there are no recommendations. This means that you can buy a little device, but nobody's going to tell you how to use it. This is making parents very uneasy, as they feel overwhelmed. We have to help people work out what to do, because lots of parents want to raise their children to be respectful, but when there are screens involved, it can lead to conflict and yelling. This is an every day occurrence. In my opinion, it would be great if children didn't have access to screens at all until they were 12 or 14 years old, so they have the least interaction with these devices possible. But this is very difficult. Based on the way we live, how our houses are designed and how are families are structured, what can we do to turn screen use into an opportunity to rethink how we want to live as families and what type of relationships we want to have? We need to ask ourselves how we should be using technology in our spaces and lives and what our basic requirements are. We also need to work out how to use technology so that it doesn't alienate people from each other or create problems and conflicts, and see technology as an opportunity so that we can somehow make the most of it while minimizing its drawbacks.

"Children need to be in contact with nature in order to develop their bodies, immune systems, psychomotor and social skills and spatial awareness."

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