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Everyday, Local, Nearby, Healthy Childhoodnature Settings as Sites for Promoting Children’s Health and Well-Being

  • Janet DymentEmail author
  • Monica Green
Living reference work entry
Part of the Springer International Handbooks of Education book series (SIHE)

Abstract

In this chapter, we highlight the central role that healthy, vibrant, and functioning “everyday, local, and nearby” childhoodnature ecosystems can play in both keeping children healthy and in helping them to understand the relationship between ecosystem health and their own health. By understanding these interconnections, children can learn that they are not separate from or superior to nature. Rather, these settings become sites where children can refresh and reimagine understandings of nature and their relationships as, within, of, and to nature. Healthy settings are, we believe, a foundation for healthy children. A focus on health is particularly timely for two reasons. First, there are mounting international concerns about children’ health – be it around issues of physical activity, mental illness, social resiliency and belonging, overweight and obesity, and spiritual grounding. But it is not only children’s health that is of concern: there are deep and mounting international concerns about the health of ecological systems, be it around issues of global warming, acid rain, species loss, air pollution, urban sprawl, waste disposal, ozone layer depletion, and water pollution. This chapter is framed around the World Health Organization’s definition of health and explores the ways in which local nearby natural childhoodnature settings can promote physical, mental, social, and spiritual health and well-being of children. To illustrate these concepts in action, we profile a case study from our research in Australia. This chapter concludes with a discussion on the ways that healthy childhoodnature settings can unite, inform, and support the interests of educators, environmentalists, and children’s health advocates who have an interest in the health of children and ecosystems.

Keywords

Settings Health promotion Local/nearby/everyday places Children Health 

Introduction

This chapter explores the ways in which healthy “everyday, local, nearby” green/natural settings in urban spaces, such as school grounds, playgrounds, backyards, and community settings, can play powerful and enabling roles in promoting health for children.

A focus on health is particularly timely for two reasons. First, there are mounting international concerns about children’s health (World Health Organization, 2016) – be it around issues of physical activity, mental illness, social resiliency and belonging, overweight and obesity, and spiritual grounding. In response to these health concerns for children, it is widely recognized that health promotion must extend beyond interventions that target individual behavior to a more comprehensive and ecological “settings approach” model that addresses the wider contexts where people live, work, and play. From this perspective, “everyday, local, nearby” places where children spend time, and which are the focus of this chapter, are important “settings” for understanding and promoting the multiple dimensions of health (Maller, Townsend, Pryor, Brown, & St Leger, 2006).

But it is not only children’s health that is of concern: there are deep and mounting international concerns about the health of ecological systems, be it around issues of global warming, acid rain, species loss, air pollution, urban sprawl, waste disposal, ozone layer depletion, and water pollution (Barnosky et al., 2011; Pimm et al., 2014). It has been argued that the human-induced change is so significant and dramatic that it should constitute a new geological epoch, which has been informally called the Anthropocene (Crutzen, 2002). The interrelationship between ecosystem and human activity is central to this new epoch. On one hand, there is despair at the pace of change, while others argue that this time can be generative and productive and call to action for changes for both ecosystem and human well-being (Braidotti, 2013; Latour, 2014).

The links between children’s health and the health of ecosystems are both obvious yet complex. By way of examples, densely populated urban spaces present health challenges to ecosystems in terms of habitat loss for birds and animals; they also present health challenges for children who find it difficult to walk or bicycle around their local communities. School grounds, local parks, and backyards that use pesticides to eliminate “weeds” contaminate soil, water, and other vegetation and are toxic to a host of other organisms including birds, fish, insects, and nontarget plants; children who are exposed to these pesticides can suffer from a range of serious illnesses and diseases, ranging from respiratory problems to cancer (Gilden, Huffling, & Sattler, 2010).

In this chapter, we highlight the central role that we believe that healthy, vibrant, and functioning “everyday, local, and nearby” childhoodnature ecosystems can/should play in both keeping children healthy and in helping them to understand the relationship between ecosystem health and their own health. By understanding these interconnections, children can learn that they are not separate from or superior to nature. Rather, these settings become sites where children can refresh and reimagine understandings of nature and their relationships as, within, of, and to nature. Healthy settings are, we believe, a foundation for healthy children.

We begin this chapter with an overview of the “greening” movement that is transforming urban childhoodnature settings where children spent time. We then briefly introduce the concept of a “settings approach” to health promotion and also examine the relationship between healthy, vibrant, and functioning ecological systems and the health and well-being of children. The majority of the chapter is framed around the World Health Organization’s definition of health and explores the ways in which local, nearby, natural play spaces can promote physical, mental, social, and spiritual health and well-being of children. By adopting a broad interpretation of “health,” we seek to expand the children’s health and well-being discourse beyond the “physical,” and we disrupt the notion that playgrounds are exclusive places to “burn up steam.” We also disrupt the notion that children are separate from nature but are instead connected to and part of nature. We point to the powerful and diverse ways that healthy local settings can support children’s health and well-being. To conclude our chapter, we illustrate these concepts in action by profiling a case study from Monica’s (second author) research on the ecological, pedagogical, and health benefits of school and community settings in Australia. The case study shows how children work to create and support healthy ecosystems and, in doing so, create spaces that promote their own health and well-being. Our chapter concludes with the contention that healthy local childhoodnature settings are places that can unite, inform, and support the interests of educators, children’s health advocates, and environmentalists who are concerned about the health of ecosystems.

Green Everyday, Local, Nearby Childhoodnature Settings

Around the world, children’s everyday, local, nearby settings, such as school grounds, public playgrounds, and backyards, are changing. Homogenous environments comprised primarily of asphalt and/or grass that are noted for being hot, hard, and barren (Fig. 1) are being transformed or “greened” into places designed to include a variety of natural elements such as vegetable gardens, wetlands, trees, frog ponds, murals, and butterfly gardens (Figs. 2, 3, and 4).
Fig. 1

Homogenous urban settings, such as this school ground which is comprised primarily of asphalt, are hot, barren, and hard

Fig. 2

A “green” school ground setting for children with a vibrant and healthy food garden

Fig. 3

A “green” early childcare setting for children with a diversity of natural play spaces and lovely shade

Fig. 4

A “green” community playground with art-enriched spaces for meeting and gathering. Mature trees provide healthy habitats for animals and birds as well as shade for children

For the purposes of this chapter, we use the term “green” to describe the changes that settings have experienced. We recognize, however, that some changes to settings, particularly in the southern hemisphere, like Australia, where our case study takes place, may actually result in the setting become more “brown,” but for the purposes of this chapter, we have chosen to use the term “green” as it reflects an international movement dedicated to transforming children’s settings.

Children’s everyday, nearby, local outdoor settings are ideal sites that serve to decenter humans and where interactions with the more-than-human world provide possibilities for challenging the “ontological position of separateness combined with the colonizing politics of anthropocentrism and human exceptionalism” (Blenkinsop, Jickling, Morse, & Jensen, in press, Wild Pedagogies: Six Touchstones for Childhoodnature). While informal settings, such as backyards and some urban parks, might be left to speak for themselves through informal education, additional powerful learning can occur in more formal settings, such as school grounds. In these formal green settings, learning can be enhanced by “brave, insightful and rebel teachers,” who are keen to wild their pedagogy and can help “bring voices of the voiceless to their students, and to enact pedagogies that are less objectively oriented and more co-constructed, less expertly known and more spontaneous, less universal and testable and more place responsive” (ibid, p. y).

Given the mounting evidence base pointing to the powerful role healthy local settings can play in the lives of children (Dooris, 2009; Dooris et al., 2007), it is internationally recognized and supported as evidenced by the large number of not-for-profit organizations that support the process of greening children’s local outdoor settings. Organizations and programs such as Evergreen in Canada, the Centre for Ecoliteracy in the United States, Learnscapes in Australia, Movium in Sweden, Ecoschools programs in South Africa, and Learning through Landscapes in the United Kingdom continue to grow in their profile and scope. These organizations provide guidance, funding, and resources to administrators, community members, teachers, and parents who are interested in beginning the process of greening.

Settings Approach to Health Promotion

The prospect of seeing “settings” as possible sites for promoting health has a long international history. It was first advocated in 1986, with the Ottawa Charter, which stated that “health is created and lived by people within the settings of their everyday life; where they learn, work, play and love” (World Health Organization, 1986). It subsequently has been promoted in the Sundsvall Statement (World Health Organization, 1991) which called for the creation of supportive environments with a focus on settings for health. Finally, the Jakarta Declaration (World Health Organization, 1997) noted the value of settings in their role in implementing far-reaching strategies and providing a framework for health promotion.

A settings approach locates health action in the “everyday life” with a recognition of the social, cultural, and physical spaces in which people live, learn, and play. In the settings approach, health promotion is reoriented from developing personal competencies toward creating healthy policies, reshaping environments to support health, and building partnerships and creating sustainable change through participation, empowerment, and ownership of change throughout the setting (Whitelaw et al., 2001).

Since its inception, a variety of “settings” have adopted the approach – such as universities, hospitals, prisons, workplaces, and schools (Dooris, 2009). What is consistent across these various settings is that they are all seen to be “systems.” The settings approach adopts a socio-ecological perspective, which explicitly recognizes the contextual and environmental factors that influence health. Interventions therefore target the physical, organizational, and social contexts in which people are found, not just the people contained in or defined by that setting (Poland, Krupa, & McCall, 2009). While we find great merit in the socio-ecological approach to health promotion, we are somewhat troubled by what we see to be the privileging of human (socio) health over the environmental (ecological) health. We wish to disrupt this privileging in this chapter – specifically human health over ecosystem health.

We hope this brief theoretical overview of settings approaches will help the reader understand why healthy “everyday, local, nearby” green childhoodnature settings, such as school grounds, backyards, community grounds, and playgrounds, can be seen as settings that can promote health of children. These are places where children engage in regular formal and informal activities. In these spaces, environmental, organizational, and personal factors can all interact to influence health and well-being. By their design, these settings can support children in developing healthy behaviors and help children understand their relationship to and with more-than-human world. As children learn to care for these local spaces and to nurture the health of these ecosystems, they become decentered from a position of privilege over more-than-human nature, and they are encouraged to participate in different kinds of physical activity; they are provided with opportunities for social inclusion and mental wellness; and they are gifted with opportunities for spiritual understanding.

Childhoodnature Turn On the Dimensions of Health

The next section of this chapter profiles the ways in which everyday, local, nearby green places are examples of a settings-based approach and explores the ways in which these healthy childhoodnature settings can promote children’s health across a range of dimensions – including physical, social, mental, and spiritual.

Childhoodnature and Physical Health

Green outdoor settings can result in many physical health benefits for children, some of which are relatively straightforward. When pesticides are eliminated and shade is increased in family yards, school grounds, or childcare playgrounds, for example, there are benefits to both the ecosystem and children. Healthier ecosystems are created, and there is a reduction in children’s exposure to harmful chemicals and ultraviolet radiation. With respect to both issues (pesticide use and shade provision), environmental research points to the damaging effects for surrounding flora and fauna (Goulson, Nicholls, Botías, & Rotheray, 2015; Potts et al., 2010), and medical research indicates that children are a particularly vulnerable population (Francesca, Elliott, & Crighton, 2014). By way of another example, the provision of shade is an important structural change to outdoor environments that makes it a healthier place for both the ecosystem and the children. For example, shade trees provide habitat and food sources for birds, squirrels, and butterflies in temperate ecosystems (Seamans, 2013); they also provide cool spaces for children to protect themselves from the damaging impacts of ultraviolet radiation (Shanahan et al., 2015).

In addition to these obvious benefits, greening can also enhance physical health in more subtle ways. However, to appreciate these, we must address two common misconceptions about the design of outdoor settings. The first is the belief that the uniform, wide-open spaces of conventional outdoor environments minimize physical risk and maximize children’s safety because there is little that children can fall down from and little to block the sight lines of the adults on playground duty. From this perspective, it may be feared that green outdoor settings increase the risk of injury – for example, by having children fall from rocks or trees, slip into ponds, or get stung by insects attracted to the vegetation or compost. In addition, there may be concern that bushes, trees, and other natural features will impair supervision.

While concerns about these risks are very real (often becoming barriers for encouraging children’s play in outdoor settings), research into the contributions of children’s outdoor interactions helps to correct the imbalance in this perspective. For example, a study of 45 schools in Toronto, Canada, indicates that green outdoor settings can actually calm the movement patterns of children and soften play surfaces so that there are, in fact, fewer “knock-and-bump” injuries (Dyment, 2005). With proper planning, furthermore, vegetation can be placed and pruned so that adequate sight lines are maintained.

Other studies have helped reframe “risk” in play settings arguing that the sterile landscapes of conventional children’s outdoor settings present a much greater health risk than rocks and trees – the risk of depriving children of the quality and variety of experiences that are crucial to their healthy development (Little & Wyver, 2008; Sandseter, 2007, 2009; Stephenson, 2003). This risk is greatest for the growing numbers of children who have little access to the natural environment. Green local outdoor places provide regular opportunities for children to interact with the more-than-human world and be with and in and part of the natural world.

A second misconception about the design of outdoor settings pertaining to physical health is the belief that flat turf and asphalt provide ideal surfaces for burning off excess energy and are therefore best suited to promoting physical activity. Again, recent studies offer a more balanced perspective. They indicate that physical activity is best supported in outdoor settings comprised of a diversity of landscape features that respond to a wide variety of children’s interests and capabilities (Bell & Dyment, 2006; Boldemann et al., 2006; Coe, Flynn, Wolff, Scott, & Durham, 2014; Dyment, Bell, & Lucas, 2009; Fjortoft, 2004; Moore & Cosco, 2014). A Canada-wide survey of 59 elementary schools suggests that greening school ground diversifies children’s play repertoire and creates opportunities for boys and girls of all ages, interests, and abilities to be more physically active (Bell & Dyment, 2006). Complementing the rule-bound, competitive games supported by asphalt and turf playing fields, greened areas in children’s outdoor settings invite children to jump, climb, dig, lift, rake, build, role-play, and generally get moving in ways that nurture all aspects of their health and development. Of particular significance is the potential to encourage moderate and light levels of physical activity by increasing the range of enjoyable, noncompetitive, imagination-based, open-ended forms of play in green outdoor settings. In these spaces, children can make discoveries and have experiences that challenge what they think they know. When children embrace the unknown, learn to deal with complexity, and be open to the spontaneous (Blenkinsop et al., in press), they can “step back from the centre…in order to allow other ideas, possibilities, spaces, beings and imaginations to emerge” (p. x).

Another physical health benefit offered by green local outdoor settings is the opportunity to promote better nutrition through children’s participation in food gardening. Rates of obesity are rising among children in Australia, Canada, the United States, and other industrialized nations, with significant physical, mental, and social health impacts (World Health Organization, 2016). Health officials are therefore striving to improve dietary behaviors and are calling upon schools and childcare centers to support healthy eating choices. While attention is focused on the food choices offered in school cafeterias and childcare centers, food gardening offers a complementary means of supporting nutrition programs through the design and use of the outdoor settings. By planting, tending, harvesting, and eating a variety of vegetables and fruits, children can gain hands-on knowledge about nutritious food and its production (Bell & Dyment, 2006; Evergreen, 2006; Gottlieb & Azuma, n.d.). Incorporating a vegetable garden into health programing can thus have a positive effect on children’s eating preferences, habits, and nutrition knowledge (Gibbs et al., 2013). The interrelationship between healthy soil and healthy children is critical here: food gardening with an organic focus also promotes a healthier ecosystem, allowing for rich soil generation and the growth of pesticide-free food that in turn sustains healthy children.

Childhoodnature and Social Health

Local nearby green outdoor settings are an important setting for social learning and development (Evans, 1995, 1997). By their design and culture, they influence social behaviors and relationships (Horning, Liden, & McMorris, 2017; Robinson & Zajicek, 2005; Titman, 1994; Waliczek, Bradley, & Zajicek, 2001). Green outdoor settings can play an important role in enhancing social health by providing a more diverse environment that better responds to the needs and interests of more children and by creating opportunities for children, communities, parents, and families to work together toward shared goals. In so doing, green outdoor environments promote social inclusion and equality and can foster greater civility, cooperation, and communication among children and between children and adults.

In her influential work on children and school ground design, Wendy Titman (1994) found a positive correlation between the conditions of the school ground and the behaviors and attitudes of children. She revealed how school grounds, in themselves, function as a “hidden curriculum” and a “form of mass communication” with a “vocabulary and grammar” of their own (pp. 16–17). Children in her study considered school grounds to be inextricably connected to the school buildings and believed that those who were responsible for the design of the school ground “made it like that” for a reason (p. 57). Thus, when school grounds failed to meet the needs of children, thereby making time in the school ground unenjoyable, they believed that this was a conscious decision by people in positions of authority who did not care.

Building on the work of Titman, others have examined the relationships between the design of outdoor settings, play opportunities, and social hierarchies and interactions (Barbour, 1999; Cheskey, 2001a; Moore & Wong, 1997). American researcher Ann Barbour (1999) compared play behaviors on two school grounds: one that primarily provided opportunities for physical play and another that provided for a diversity of play opportunities. At schools that only provided opportunities for active and physical play, social hierarchies were established through these means, and children with low physical competence or desires were often socially excluded. Conversely, at schools where a diversity of play opportunities was afforded, students who were less physically competent could still engage in types of play that were more in line with their abilities and interests.

Conventional outdoor settings, by their design, provide a limited range of play opportunities that privilege certain individuals. Expanses of pavement and manicured grass offer opportunities primarily for large group, competitive, rule-bound games. They satisfy some children but provide few choices for those who prefer to play in smaller groups, who do not wish or are not able to compete, or who prefer more open-ended or creative kinds of games. Research suggests, for example, that conventional playgrounds cater to only a portion of the population – primarily boys, older students, and students with high physical competence who tend to dominate large open spaces and play equipment (Cunningham & Jones, 1996; Dyment, 2005; Nabhan & Trimble, 1994; Ridgers, Stratton, Curley, & White, 2005).

In contrast, green outdoor settings present the possibility of alternative, less oppressive approaches to dealing with these issues, in large part by satisfying the desires and needs of a wider variety of children. In their study of a green school ground in Berkeley California, for example, Robin Moore and Tony Wong (1997) found that children were able to “expand the play repertoire” (p. 91), engaging in less organized play and more unorganized or “free” play. On the green school ground, they observed an increase in active play, creative play, pretend play, exploratory play, constructive play, and social play, compared to the original school ground. They noted:

This was a far cry from the old school ground, where girls hung around admiring the boys’ prowess at playing ball or felt excluded because they were not attracted by the crowded play equipment; and where nonathletic children were ridiculed for not participating in the unchanging routines of ball courts, game lines, and metal bars. (Moore & Wong, 1997, p. 91)

A diversity of play opportunities is key for the facilitation of social skills. Citing an Australian study of over 4000 children in 21 primary schools, Evans (1998) notes that “the most active playgrounds with the happiest children were those containing the greatest variety of play areas” (p. 15).

Gardening activities in particular seem to provide ongoing opportunities to build positive relationships among students, staff, and parents, a key element in establishing a healthy school culture (Chawla, Keena, Pevec, & Stanley, 2014; Horning et al., 2017; Maller, 2005; Robinson & Zajicek, 2005). Some have argued that these benefits can be even more dramatic if children are involved in the full process of greening, from planning and design to implementation and maintenance (Green, 2014). In such cases, children typically have opportunities to work with a range of individuals from both within and outside the school or childcare center. They are able to share interests, values, and time with other students, teachers, parents, and community members as they work toward common goals. They also learn important social life skills, such as teamwork, cooperation, and persistence (Alexander, Wales North, & Hendren, 1995; Horning et al., 2017).

Because greening projects tend to encourage broad community involvement, the social benefits can extend beyond the immediate school or early years setting, affecting the social health of the broader community (Barker, 1994; Herrington, 1999; Maller, 2005; Maller & Townsend, 2005). Greening outdoor environments provides a process and a place where people can meet, make friends, and build a sense of community and purpose (Dyment, 2005; Horning et al., 2017; Lewis, 1992). As projects evolve, and outdoor spaces become greener and more inviting, they embody the effort, care, and vision of those involved, sending a powerful message to the broader community. (Of course, if projects are untended or abandoned, the opposite is also true.) According to an Australian study, students who were involved in greening initiatives felt a greater sense of commitment to and from the broader school community as well as more links with other schools, parents, and the local community (Maller, 2005).

Childhoodnature and Mental Health

It has been long acknowledged across a range of cultures that plants, gardens, and gardening can have positive impacts on the mental health and well-being of humans (Ulrich, 1999). The tradition of using landscapes as a therapeutic healing tool has endured since ancient Egypt, when court physicians would prescribe walks in palace gardens for royalty who were mentally unwell (Davis, 1998). Likewise today outdoor spaces around some facilities, such as hospitals and prisons, are being consciously designed with a view to promoting mental wellness (Kellert, 2002; Lewis, 1992).

A growing body of literature points to the therapeutic role of more-than-human environment, particularly as this relates to mental health (Kaplan, 2001; Olds, 1989; Ulrich, 1984, 1999; Ulrich & Parsons, 1992; Ulrich et al., 1991). A basic premise is that contact with the natural world can provide relief from stress. Much of this research has been conducted with adults, although there is evidence of similar benefits for children. For example, Wells and Evans (2003) found that the presence of natural elements moderated the impacts of stressful life events on children aged 6 through 12 who lived in a rural context. The authors discuss the policy and design implications of their findings, noting that “natural areas closer to housing and schools are essential features in an effort to foster resilience of children and perhaps to promote their healthy development” (p. 327). This assertion is particularly relevant for health-promoting schools and the green outdoor environment movement. Stressful events negatively influence children’s disposition for learning, rendering them less able to concentrate, overly anxious, and lacking in self-esteem. If nature can play a restorative role, then potentially it can also enhance children’s ability to learn.

Indeed, research indicates that contact with nature supports attentional functioning (Faber-Taylor, Kuo, & Sullivan, 2001; Kuo & Taylor, 2004; Wells, 2000) and can enhance human effectiveness and make life’s demands seem manageable (Kuo, 2001). A study focusing on children with attention deficit disorder (ADD) examined the relationship between children’s exposure to nature through leisure activities and their attentional functioning (Faber-Taylor et al., 2001). Parents were surveyed regarding their child’s attentional functioning after activities in several settings. Results indicate that children with ADD function better than usual after activities in green settings. Further, the “greener” a child’s play area, the less severe his or her attention deficit symptoms tend to be. Thus, contact with nature may benefit a population of children who desperately need attentional support.

Other studies also point to the ways that green outdoor settings support mental health of children. A recent American study demonstrated that green school grounds were seen as “havens” for children that allowed them to escape stress, focus, and build competence (Chawla et al., 2014). Another American study also lends support to the relationship between green outdoor settings and mental health of children by specifically exploring how natural environments promote self-determination (Kochanowski & Carr, 2014). The authors found that play in more-than-human natural environments encouraged children to demonstrate choice making, problem-solving, self-regulation, and engagement.

Finally, on green outdoor settings, participation in gardening and greening activities has tangible results, creating opportunities for students to feel good about their accomplishments and to gain a sense of pride, responsibility, and self-confidence (Dyment, 2005; Maller, 2005; Moore & Wong, 1997). The broader body of horticultural therapy literature supports this contention and identifies a number of health benefits for children from working with plants. These include improved interpersonal relationships, constructive channelling of energy, heightened sense of productivity, improved self-esteem, and an improved disposition for learning (Pentz & Strauss, 1998; Relf, 1998).

Childhoodnature and Spiritual Health

Although spiritual health is recognized within the health-promoting settings movement, it is not easily defined or discussed. For our purposes here, we turn to a recent conceptualization of spiritual health offered by Schein (2014) who defines spiritual well-being/health for children as:

A system of children’s deep connections leading first to self-awareness, and later to the nurturing of basic and complex dispositions ignited by moments of wonderment, awe, joy, and inner peace that develops into the prosocial personality traits of caring, kindness, empathy, and reverence. The system requires love and attachment… (p. 78)

In light of this definition, it makes sense to consider how healthy green childhoodnature settings can foster wonder, awe, and joy which in turn might generate caring, kind, and empathetic traits in children. To begin, a common purpose of green outdoor settings is to create a place for other more-than-human life where children will have regular, ongoing opportunities for interaction with plants and animals and for understanding and experiencing themselves as interconnected with the whole (Bell, 2001; Cheskey, 2001b). As they listen or watch for birds, follow animal tracks, or explore for caterpillars or ladybugs, children can become attuned to the comings and goings of other beings and to their purposeful existence. As children are provided regular (possibly even daily) opportunities to encounter in these spaces, there is opportunity for powerful decentering of the taken for granted human voice and a re-centering of more-than-human voices (Blenkinsop et al., in press).

As they plant seeds, fill bird feeders, or mulch trees, children assume a nurturing role and develop a sense of relationship and intimacy with a living world in which they can actively participate (Bell, 2001; Pivnick, 2001). Gardening in particular can provide an opportunity to deal with losses and failures and to experience the responsiveness of plants to care and nurturing. As Charles Lewis (1992) explains: “from a human perspective, the strength of gardening lies in nurturing. Caring for another living entity is a basic quality of being human” (p. 58).

The Toronto study cited above indicates that these potential benefits are being widely realized on green outdoor settings. Questionnaire respondents indicated that students were more likely to explore widely (90%), to learn about their local environment (91%), and to have a greater sense of wonder and curiosity (92%) after their school ground had been greened. Over 90% of respondents also indicated that student environmental awareness and stewardship had increased on the green school ground.

As environmental awareness increases, there is reason to believe that children’s sense of hope and commitment to their local environment and to the living world around them is also enhanced (of course it could be also argued that stewardship might serve to promote the nature-culture binary which has been critiqued through a post-humanist perspective in this chapter). Through hands-on involvement with the human and natural communities of which they are a part, children learn that barren patches of pavement and manicured grass can be successfully transformed into diverse and welcoming places that better respond to their own needs as well as those of other living beings. Depending on their level of involvement in the greening project, they can also learn that they have a right to participate in decisions that affect their quality of life (Dyment, 2004; Hart, 1997). Research shows that children, when given the opportunity, are able to critically evaluate their play spaces, identify alternatives, and evaluate the outcomes (Hart, 1997; Jensen, 2002). When fully involved in the greening process, children can acquire skills related to democracy, participation, and citizenship that they can potentially carry forward into adulthood (Dyment, 2004; Hart, 1997).

Ultimately, green outdoor settings can help to nurture a deeper sense of purpose and meaning. As Robin Moore (1999) contends, gardening, working, and playing with plants allow children to “participate in the processes of life” (p. 326) and to foster a sense of identity and belonging. Through personal, ongoing, and caring engagement, they can develop a stronger sense of place attachment, a benefit described in the horticultural therapy literature and associated with public involvement, altruistic behaviors, stress reduction, reduced crime, and a sense of coherence and health (Hill & Vigo, 1992).

Childhoodnature Healthy Settings Case Study: The Waterford Landcare Program

Introduction to Case Study

In this section of the chapter, we apply some of the highlighted theoretical aspects to a specific case study as a way of illustrating how green childhoodnature settings can be seen as health promoting settings. We do this by drawing on Australian-based empirical research that investigated the impact of school ground pedagogies on children’s health and the health of the ecosystem. Central to the research were emergent findings that stressed the benefits of children’s health and well-being through active participation in school ground and community-based projects. Another central finding was the interrelationship between the ecosystem health and the health of the children. Many of the projects involved children working to make the local ecosystem healthier, more vibrant, and more functioning. This occurs as the children help in designing and maintaining gardens, working in conservation- and art-based projects alongside community people as part of everyday learning in everyday places. One of the key features of the case study is the way in which the school’s physical spaces and its wider community are understood, utilized, and valued for children’s health, learning, and relationship with/to/as nature.

Background Context to Case Study

Waterford school (not its real name) is located on the banks of the D’Entrecasteaux Channel, which is a major coastal waterway between the Tasmanian mainland and Bruny Island in southern Tasmania, approximately one hour’s drive from the capital city of Hobart. Historically an old working farm, the school is set on 10-hectares and has a unique school ground ecology that features a wetland, tree woodlot, local foreshore, grasslands, and small food gardens (Fig. 5). The sites are pedagogically integral to a whole-school. Landcare (The term “Landcare” refers to place-based ecological activities including tree planting, organic food gardening, recycling, and waste and biodiversity projects) curriculum that encompasses site-specific projects across the school population.
Fig. 5

A classroom without walls: promoting children’s health and well-being

The Landcare curriculum was developed over a decade ago by a motivated environmental education teacher. Its key aim was to promote children’s participation in nearby everyday places through engaging with local knowledge, history, heritage, geography, and ecology via the framework of education for sustainability. Student immersion in the coastal school ground was informed by the teacher’s belief that children’s interactions with local ecologies have significant social and emotional value, anchoring them in place and revealing much about themselves and the world they inhabit. In Landcare learning, children’s capacity to comprehend and connect with landscape ecologies, including the systemic and cyclical patterns, coastal waters and marine life, vegetation and fauna, soil, and the numerous other more-than-human life forms and the ongoing exchanges with those life forms, is highly prioritized, as evidenced by the Landcare teacher:

I think it’s really important for kids to know where they live and there’s such a rich resource in outside the classroom, outside the school…[it] is often neglected…it’s important to really foster that sense of wonder about their place…to get to know it, identify with it, be the expert and caretaker of that patch, and develop an awareness of the changes that occur in that place.

In what follows, children and teacher testimonials accentuate the four pillars of health – physical, social, mental, and spiritual – that are enacted, supported, and advanced within the Landcare program as part of a whole-school approach to student well-being.

Physical Health

Waterford’s place-based Landcare program is undertaken across the broader school ground landscape and utilizes diverse features appropriate to students’ interests and capabilities. As with most schools, the central grounds constitute a combination of conventional hard surfaces, netball and basketball courts, manufactured playing equipment, and sandpits, which are complemented with accessible and modest native gardens and food gardens. Beyond the main school, the grounds expand outward to encompass a football oval, a wetland with surrounding fields of native grasslands, an extensive chicken shed, arboretum, and a capacious coastal foreshore, as highlighted in Fig. 6. While the younger students (ages 5 and 6) care for little gardens closer to classroom buildings, the older students venture to more out-of-the-way sites where they plant trees, make compost, collect native seed from the arboretum to raise seedlings, and build and maintain more expansive food gardens. At the commencement of each Landcare class, students meet at the garden shed to partake in customary rituals that support their transition from indoor work to embodied practical outdoor learning. After putting on gum boots and gloves and selecting the required tools – secateurs, shovels, wheelbarrows, and watering cans – they head off to their allocated projects.
Fig. 6

Embodied learning in a coastal classroom

For the younger students, this includes maintaining a newly finished native garden designed to attract local fauna. While weeding around the plastic tree guards, one young student tells us:

In this garden, we run around in the bushes and we do a lot of dodging things. Sometimes we have hide and seek. I like playing in there too [points to a tree that has open branches where a cubby hole has been made]. This hakea bush [a small endemic plant with spiked leaves] is just about special to everyone because it’s spiky and gives protection to birds. And it also gives some good material for making stuff, and the plants next door to it sometimes have nutritious flowers for the birds, so it’s a double thing really, they get protection and food. (Sam, 9 years old)

Established as part of the students’ Landcare lessons, the garden is now an everyday site where children run and play, exchange materials for building cubbies, and observe the comings and goings of the more-than-human world. The physical construction and inhabitation of this particular site is a good example of how students physically occupy the space through structured teaching and learning, open-ended, self-directed, and spontaneous play.
Similarly, in their wetland work, older students dedicate several Landcare lessons to maintaining the health of the site – clearing weeds, digging trenches, and planting grasses – as a way of improving effective wetland functionality, such as filtering inland water runoff that will eventually find its way (unhindered) to the foreshore. Students show their understanding of the renewed ecosystem health that has emerged, in part, as a result of their efforts:

I reckon the wetland has changed a lot. It used to have weeds growing up twice as high as it is now. When we came here it was covered in combungi [invasive weed], it was everywhere. Over there we found it was leaking water into the dam making it worse. There was a giant puddle so we ended up digging a big trench all the way to the dam to fill it up. Otherwise the combungi was just growing, thriving. (Aden, 11 years old)

The wetland helps the other plants to grow and lets the water flow through. We’ve been pulling out the combungi weed, it drinks up all of the water. We get our chopper things [machete] and we cut the tops off. We have to make sure we have to get the seeds off and we pull the weeds out. It is so much fun doing it as a class. It gets all muddy and you have to be quick on it, so you go like this [chopping motion] and then you start sinking [in the mud]. And once someone sunk right into it so they had to get Pete and Gary [the grounds men] to pull them out. (Alex, 11 years old)

We view the physical and embodied nature of the Landcare work cited above as multidimensional and worthy of examination. Firstly, the lessons afford an important opportunity to advance children’s physicality – digging, planting, mulching, cutting, making gardens, harvesting and cooking food, etc., which ultimately contributes to their own physical health and well-being. Secondly, their physical work has a direct bearing on renewing the health of the physical school ecosystem. In this sense, children view their work as instrumental in maintaining the ecological integrity and health of their coastal landscape, which ultimately supports their physical health. Through these various physical acts of sustainability, children are able to pay attention to how they and the place itself are changed and shaped as a consequence of their physical work.

Social Health

The Landcare program provides a number of social health benefits, which can be observed through the utilization of distinctive outdoor learning environments to meet the diverse needs and interests of students. As a school facing considerable socioeconomic and educational challenges, the Landcare initiative supports many students who have spent much of their schooling life alienated by an academically privileged curriculum. The origins of the program, which stem from the environmental teachers’ initial outings with small groups of disconnected students, transpired through reengaging them in socially oriented school ground planting activities. In discovering the social benefits of students working together in shared projects as genuine learners and leaders, the program was expanded across the school community through several sustainability-based projects.

At the time of conducting research at the school, the Landcare program was identified by the school principal as a contributing factor in school culture renewal:

This is a local place and community where there isn’t a huge amount of money; our students feel that they’re second best. I heard the term ‘bush pig’ for the first time when I first worked here. The students had this feeling that maybe other schools are better or other parents care about their kids more, so they might send them to other schools. So, there’s a feeling of inferiority and cringe amongst the kids that we actually needed to turn around.

One of Landcare’s key innovations is inviting community into the school, which has triggered ensuing partnerships with the wider community: farmers, beekeepers, gardeners, flower growers, composters, ornithologists, local artists, and orchardists who bring substantial levels of knowledge and expertise into the school. Known as community-based curriculum, the approach underpins the development of intergenerational relations and communication between community members/elders and organizations and the school community. According to the Landcare teacher:

This community is a unique community in that it’s a beautiful coastal environment, but there’s still a traditional sort of community that is part of the old farming ways. Then you’ve got the enterprising people. I guess it harks back to that sense of who we are as a community and for kids to understand who we are as a community. Kids can work one on one working with these community people who are really passionate about what they do. That’s the really important thing about the community, whoever they are …we need different people with different views of the world. This is what education should be about.

Similar notions of community are exemplified in the art-based Flotsam and Jetsam (Fig. 7) exhibition along the 1 km foreshore-walking trail below the school grounds, involving local artists and other nearby schools. Installations made from miscellaneous objects and materials collected from the foreshore represent diverse interpretations of coastal relations, connections, and inhabitation. Unlike traditional educational approaches that contain teaching and learning within school boundaries (and classrooms), often with one teacher, and which tend to separate schools from the broader community, community-based pedagogies offer important social opportunities that connect students with their community through new relationships and shared engagement.
Fig. 7

Local artists work with school children to create the art-based Flotsam and Jetsam exhibition that features along the foreshore-walking trail

Mental Health

Building on its capacity to support children’s social health, the Landcare program characterizes how children’s mental health, including resilience, sense of identity, and belonging, is cultivated. A key aim of the program is to encourage children’s ecological stewardship or, in other words, a sense of care and empathy for the more-than-human world that includes plants and animals. This also extends to care and empathy to other human beings. One such example is the entrepreneurial chicken project involving a group of older boys challenged by conventional classroom-based learning. Once assigned to the project (focusing on raising chickens and selling eggs), the teacher allocated each of the boys’ leadership roles and tasks that provided genuine responsibility, engagement, and outcomes. As the leader of the project described:

We’ve got a lot of responsibility here. When I first took over the chickens you would walk outside your class and you’d see a chicken run past, they were everywhere around the school. Me and my team ended up rounding them up, putting them back in their pen and fixing up all the holes in there. And my work has finally come through and we have two, three new baby chickens. He [chicken farmer mentor] talked about how to get rid of mites and black mites which is in their feathers. He said we should have some railing up for roosting that we built in the afternoon… we had to paint their legs with used cooking oil and ash to stop mites. Now they can walk easier because the leg mites stopped them from walking. Did you know the mites bury their heads into the chickens and suck their blood? My chickens at home have never looked better. I treat them with the best respect. (George, 12 years old)

George’s description of his work with a local chicken farmer highlights the new skills and knowledge acquired from the group about managing the animals with care and respect. The project exemplifies how the boys’ sense of identity and self-esteem has shifted. According to their teacher, “They feel proud about what they’ve done, and they get an opportunity to talk about what they’ve done.” Her observations align with those of the principal who voices a broader perspective of the program:

The overall strength of the program is its ability to generate success by connecting kids to their place and to their community, so that they now feel really proud of the place that they live in. There’s a sense of pride from the whole community so it’s not just a school thing. The community has taken it on. And the strength of this program is that it connects kids to their place, to their community. It generates success. And that success is really positive. We’re actually setting kids up to have skills and to have values that are going to help them make choices later on in life. (School principal)

As the program develops and gains statewide and national recognition, children conduct student-led tours throughout the school ground property, showcasing diverse sustainability and ecology projects that position children at the forefront of action-based learning. Asking one of the older students to explain the rationale behind the high levels of interest in the program, the student responded:

I guess they’re kind of interested to see what children can do when they put their minds to something…what we have done over the last maybe five years is to help this beautiful place become what it is today. We’ve had lots of schools coming to try and do what we’ve been doing here. So, we’ve actually influenced others to help the environment and that’s such a brilliant feeling. (Catrina, 12 years old)

The student-led tours provide an important opportunity for children to confidently showcase their Landscape work. Additionally, the tours reveal children’s sense of purpose in their learning (from a desire to act based on something that matters), deep layers of knowledge, and their intrinsic motivation to defend and preserve an ecological landscape. As participants in a “Landcare” tour, we observed overarching notions of identity, dedication, stewardship, attachment to place, and sense of pride in children’s communication.

Spiritual Health

Despite being an often-overlooked dimension of western education, spiritual health or spiritual development is a fundamental element of the Landcare program, which is promoted through children’s sense of wonder and connection to the human and more-than-human world. Predominantly, spiritual health is fostered through children’s encounters with the living systems and via their emergent interactions with ecological life forms and forces that make up the school grounds – the soil, trees, birds, platypus, the foreshore, gardens, ladybugs, and the weather, all of which are linked to broader ecological themes such as biological diversity, interdependence, food webs and ecological communities, and connectivity.

While children instinctively pursue these exchanges with and without the permission of adults, their immersion in the wonderment and awe of coastal ecologies is also fostered by an explicit pedagogy of care that is relayed and modelled by their environmental teacher, who encourages their alertness to and respect for the wonderment of all life forms.

My philosophy is to encourage kids to develop a sense of place in the sense of understanding of where we live, where they live and to get to know their place and first to get to know it and understand the sense of wonder about their place. It’s not so much about the end product but more about the processes that allow the students to care. It’s that development of nurturing and caring for the planet, for our environment and for our place because that develops ownership. Eventually [the children] feel really proud of the place that they live in.

Coming to know a place by simply being in it is encouraged by the teacher, who, at the end of each lesson, invites children to find a “magic spot” and sit contemplatively for a few minutes to pay attention to the “specialness” of their place. As evidenced by the photo below (Fig. 8), these places are often well-known to children and hold particular meaning and purpose. This spiritual perspective of learning was typified when children showed us their favorite school ground sites: trees and bushes, food gardens, a refurbished wetland, a newly built chicken shed, and a foreshore with newly planted grasses. For the children, these are places of purpose, empowerment, inhabitation, connection, and ownership which they intimately embody through everyday interactions.
Fig. 8

Fostering spiritual health through connections with special places

Case Study Conclusion

The Waterford case study represents an important and far-reaching snapshot of how the various aspects of health – physical, social, mental, and spiritual – are constituted through its Landcare program. More than just an environmental initiative, Landcare pedagogies and curriculum have been instrumental in reshaping and expanding the capacity of the school community, equipping it to better support the health and well-being of the local ecosystem, which in turn supports the health and well-being of students, teachers, families, and community. Through building partnerships and creating sustainable change through participation, empowerment, and ownership of change throughout the school setting (Whitelaw et al., 2001), the program’s evolution can be understood as a major catalyst for cultural, social, and environmental awakening within the wider school community.

Conclusion

In this chapter, we have profiled how healthy everyday, local, nearby childhoodnature settings, such as school grounds, backyards, and community grounds, serve to promote health across a range of dimensions. In doing so, these spaces stand to be an important part of the “settings approach” to health promotion. We have also showcased, from a post-humanist perspective, how these critical childhoodnature settings help children understand their relationship to and with the more-than-human world.

As academics, we find the theoretical evidence base across the four dimensions of health areas to be comprehensive, convincing, and compelling. In our role as researchers who have studied the impacts of greening initiatives in Australia (Monica and Janet) and Canada (Janet), our research endeavors and associated findings lend strong support to the ideas presented in this chapter. Equally important, in our role as teacher educators and practitioners, we have worked with and alongside children, teachers, and community members (such as those profiled in the case study) to create healthier vibrant and functioning ecosystems. Our personal experiences add further credence to the contention that healthy everyday, local, nearby childhoodnature settings have an important role to play in promoting children’s physical, social, mental, and spiritual health. Overwhelmingly, in all of our roles as academics, researchers, teacher educators, and practitioners, we witness these settings as valuable contexts for cultivating children’s sense of dwelling and belonging. One of the many ways to develop this sense of interconnectedness is through proactive processes that invite children to inhabit their local places through embodied and experiential opportunities. Taken to the next level, these experiences support and encourage children’s ecological, personal, and social understandings of the world, and provide a gateway into their comprehension of, and commitment to, the places that sustain ongoing human and ecosystem health and well-being.

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Copyright information

© Springer International Publishing AG, part of Springer Nature 2018

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.School of EducationUniversity of TasmaniaHobartAustralia
  2. 2.Faculty of Education and ArtsFederation UniversityGippsland CampusAustralia

Section editors and affiliations

  • Marianne Logan
    • 1
  • Helen Widdop Quinton
    • 2
  1. 1.Southern Cross UniversityLismoreAustralia
  2. 2.Victoria UniversityMelbourneAustralia

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