This new award-winning documentary reveals the stark contrasts between America's obsession with standardized tests, at the cost of everything else, and Scandinavia's embrace of all things nature-based. It's clear which is the more successful approach.
There is something terribly wrong with the American education system. It has become less about the children and their instinctive love of play, exploration, and innovation, and more about the collection of data for adults who want kids to attain ever-higher test scores. Entire years are lost to preparing for costly standardized tests, and even recess – that most crucial break throughout the day – is being sacrificed to create more time for study. This is unnatural and downright abusive for children.
This is not the way kids should be learning. It’s no wonder that American kids are more stressed than a child should ever be. They suffer from high rates of ADHD, obesity, and depression. Parents are burdened with keeping on top of several hours’ worth of homework each night, not to mention the constant driving around to extracurricular activities and additional tutoring, all in the name of preparation for success in adult life.In the words of John Dewey, “Education is not preparation for life; education is life itself.” Surely there is another way of teaching children so that they enjoy it, so their childhood is not lost, so that they become creative innovators, rather than robotic test-takers.
A brand new documentary called “NaturePlay: Take Childhood Back” delves into this issue, taking the stance that children are now the world’s most endangered species, but that there’s hope – if you know where to look.
After experiencing the “diseased” U.S. education system firsthand, Danish filmmaker Dan Stilling (who filmed “The Martian”) and American producer/writer Aimie Stilling head to Scandinavia to show how children are educated there, in stark contrast to the U.S. approach. The result is a beautiful 80-minute documentary that moves between the forests near Copenhagen to the fjords of northern Norway, looking at the unusual and truly wonderful ways in which Scandinavian children are taught. The film has been very well-received and has already won 5 international awards.
The fundamental difference shown in the film is the attitude that “Children belong in nature, and nature belongs in education.” Many children attend forest kindergartens, where they spend most of their days outside, rain or shine. In the words of one teacher, “I’ve never met a child so wet that they couldn’t get dry again.” Even children who live in urban settings are frequently taken into the wilderness, into national parks, where they engage with nature for hours on end.
Kids as young as three are given knives and saws and taught how to use them properly. They wield fishing rods, tie their own knots, climb steep inclines and walls. They are encouraged to build fires, to help prepare school meals, even to get hurt in order to learn their own boundaries.
Natural adventure playgrounds are designed carefully and consciously, complete with boulder piles, rough terrain, hanging ropes, obstacle courses, and loose parts, including ‘dangerous’ materials like old boards with nails sticking out of them. Nobody is yelling at the kids to “be careful!” or “stop doing that!” because Nordic adults understand risk assessment. They know how to find that balance between a bit of injury that will teach a good lesson and actual danger – very little of which actually exists, unlike the American attitude toward play.
In an interview with Rain or Shine Mama, film producer Aimie Stilling explains why this film is relevant right now:
“We are in turmoil in our violent society and in conflict in our relationships with every other species on this earth. Why is that? We always treat the symptoms but not the cause. If we have sensitivities in the way we raise our children and treat them with humanity, then all the pieces will fall into place. Empathy breeds empathy – towards each other and this planet. We need to devise ways to save humanity’s connection to nature in the next generation.”
My favorite line in the film was from Klaus Nedergaard, a supervisor at a natural playground featured in the film: “Rules are too rigid. Common sense is better.” If we could infuse even a fraction of that common sense into the North American school system, our children would be better off for it.
NaturePlay is available for pre-ordered screenings.