On a warm day last February, the Explorer's Club at Tuckahoe Elementary School in Arlington, Virginia, met next to the large pond in the Discovery Schoolyard, a collection of natural areas on school grounds.
The members, four second-grade boys, pondered the thin layer of ice on the pond, searched for fossils among the rocks, and discovered the first flowers of spring. They wondered aloud how the ground could be frozen and scrambled across rocks to get a closer look at a winterberry bush. The boys pointed, touched, poked, and dug.
A natural focus
Why a nature club for only four kids? The answer involves several factors. The school's special education teacher, Cheryl Douglas, and its outdoor learning coordinator, Beth Reese, were inspired by research done by the Human Environmental Resources Laboratory (HERL) at the University of Illinois. The study reveals that youngsters with ADHD who spent time in natural settings experienced relief from their symptoms, whether they camped, played sports, or just took a walk. The greener the setting, the better the effect — being outdoors in a paved area doesn't work.
HERL researchers suggest that natural surroundings help children with ADHD by giving them an outlet for "involuntary attention" - letting their senses explore even as their minds wander. Research had already shown that everyone benefits from being outdoors, but this study shows a stronger effect for kids with ADHD.
Teachers at Tuckahoe had long known the general benefits of outdoor education. Working with the National Wildlife Federation (NWF) and a local volunteer group, Arlingtonians for a Clean Environment, teachers and students created small wildlife habitats on school property.
The habitats contain a rich variety of plants and landscape elements designed to attract wildlife, and they serve as living science laboratories and teaching spaces. A single schoolyard habitat is pretty simple to create. But Tuckahoe's teachers, parents, and students didn't stop with one. They've expanded the idea to establish seven distinct natural areas.
After reading the HERL study, Douglas and Reese envisioned a new way to use these outdoor spaces. "It just seems to make common sense — when you're outside, you feel better than when you're inside," said Douglas. So they brought together Theo, Max, Finlay, and Will, two of whom have ADHD, to engage all their senses and take advantage of the keen powers of observation that kids with ADHD often possess. "They come up with really great observations," said Douglas. "They tell you stuff you didn't ask about."
Douglas and Reese will informally measure the impact of their experiment on the students. While it's too early to tell whether the outdoor sessions are improving concentration and memory, as in the HERL study, the Club has already produced some impressive benefits - better social and communication skills.
"If you're nice to a caterpillar," said Theo, "it will be your friend when it's a butterfly." Theo's observation led to a conversation about how to foster friendships among people. Finding bugs in the ground and fossils in the rocks gives children a springboard for communication as they ponder the meaning of their discoveries.
Melissa McCracken sees this result in her son, Finlay, who has ADHD. Finlay had been uncommunicative, but since joining the Explorer's Club, he's opened up. "He needed an opportunity to use his brain in his own way," she says. Finlay's new openness has given McCracken a chance to work with her son on conversation skills. She's already noticed an improvement in his social abilities, such as making eye contact.
The club seems to have bolstered members' self-esteem, as well. When asked if he could find the reason for a leaking waterfall, Theo replied, of course he could. "I'm pretty smart!"