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Freedom of research | Nature is something that we need to have within ourselves

03.07.2023 - 10:53 update 28.08.2023 - 10:34
Editors: OO



“Freedom of Research – Science for the Future” series consists of articles, interviews and short videos presenting research conducted by the winners of the “Freedom of Research” call for proposals

Joanna Godawa, PhD

Nature is something that we need to have within ourselves

| Olimpia Orządała |

We live in times of limited contact with nature. Many of us aren’t even aware of this. The fast pace of life, the Internet and social media have distanced us from nature. Joanna Godawa, PhD, from the Faculty of Social Sciences of the University of Silesia in Katowice, the winner of the second edition of the ‘Freedom of research’ competition of the Research Excellence Initiative, talks about the need for returning to nature, outdoor education and more. The scientist is the author of the book ‘Green inclusion – on the relationship between man and nature, outdoor education and a forest fairy tale’, which introduces the topic of ‘being in nature’, mindfulness and the great need for change in school and preschool education.

dr Joanna Godawa
Joanna Godawa, PhD from the Faculty of Social Sciences of the University of Silesia in Katowice | fot. private archive of Joanna Godawa, PhD

Olimpia Orządała: What relationship does the 21st century human have with nature?

Joanna Godawa, PhD: This is quite a complex question. This depends on age group and living place. We can observe that inhabitants of large cities feel less connected with nature than people from small towns and villages. However, research shows that almost all of us have a deficit contact with nature. Our lives have changed in terms of spending free time, even comparing to one generation back. During five days of schooling children usually spend an hour or two outside – that’s very little. As part of the project, I talked to parents to check whether the time children spend in front of computer or smartphone screens is equal to the time spent outside. And of course it’s not balanced. The respondents themselves admitted that in their childhood they went outside and took part in team games more often. Nowadays, our children spend more time on individual games. All this translates into our social functioning.

As parents, we have a lot of fears – we live in times of immediacy, due to the wide access to the mass media, we know immediately when something happens to someone. However, there were also fears like ‘my child will get dirty’. We used to say that a happy child is a dirty child. All sensory games, which, as we know, serve harmonious development, often require getting dirty. Our living environment, houses and apartments are becoming more and more sterile and playing with stones, sticks, in mud, streams and puddles is not comfortable for parents. We have often replaced these natural games and toys with plastic, loud-sounding substitutes.

But there are also people who use alternative education facilities, forest kindergartens, where children, for example, stay outside all day, experience the world multi-sensory, observe nature and learn by experiencing. Research has shown that some parents are aware of how these things influence the development of their children, however, for some reason they don’t do it.

Olimpia Orządała: Why?

Joanna Godawa, PhD: Because we live fast, we have many different responsibilities, our children go to many extracurricular activities. Looking back, we didn’t use to organise their free time so much. There were classes at school, someone was taking extra English, but it wasn’t that much.

Olimpia Orządała: Now the kids have a whole week planned out. English on Monday, swimming on Tuesday, karate on Wednesday…

Joanna Godawa, PhD: Yes, sometimes children have more than six extracurricular activities per week. Parents are a ‘delivery company’, often they also provide meals – some even feed children in the car, on the way from one school to another, from class to class. So when do children have time to be outside?

Olimpia Orządała: They don’t have time for that.

Joanna Godawa, PhD: And even when they have enough time, they often choose computer screens, smartphones or TV sets. Technology is not bad and it’s widely attractive. We, adults, know that too. At some point Americans noticed the problem that children stopped going outside. Many interesting publications have been published on this subject, including the groundbreaking book ‘Last Child in the Woods. Saving Our Children From Nature-Deficit Disorder” by Richard Louv, which really started it all.

Once, during a meeting in Akademickie Zacisze [Academic Seclusion] – a meeting space for scientists and practitioners established and led by Prof. Roman Leppert – one of the guests of the meeting devoted to outdoor education, began to wonder how it is possible that before our children go to kindergarten, we somehow know that they must spend as much time as possible outside. We have encoded in out DNA that we need to take our children for walks. And then everything changes – we fall into the whirl of organising their time. In addition, when it’s the weekend and we have free time, we often make up for what we missed during the week. All this happens at the expense of our being around nature.

Olimpia Orządała: What are the effects of being isolated from nature?

Joanna Godawa, PhD: We become less sensitive and observant. In a certain way, it also inhibits our cognitive curiosity. I’ve even read that staring at screens significantly reduces the speed of thinking and sensitivity to the world. This also affects sensory integration – children without the experience of walking barefoot and playing in natural space have developmental problems. They also feel “out of place”. We live in cities, where we are often anonymous. Living in large blocks of flats, we don’t know our neighbors at all. Its far-reaching effect is that we care less about our places. It is easier for us to litter, to behave contrary to ecology, because we do not feel that we belong to these places. The research I conducted showed that 50% of parents couldn’t name a place in nature to which they are emotionally attached. So how to instil pro-ecological attitudes and love for the place you care for in children?

Olimpia Orządała: We should start with parents, grandparents. Children must follow the example.

Joanna Godawa, PhD: Exactly. There is a concept of a guide of nature, and everyone can become such a guide. However, as adults, are we aware that we are the first guides for our children? It turns out that probably not. And yet, it turns out it is enough to take the child for a walk, show, for example, a squirrel, donuts on trees, collect acorns and generally sensitise to what surrounds us. We don’t need any great journeys into nature, we have it around us every day. Even here, on the campus of the University of Silesia, trees are at our fingertips. You can see what is happening in nature. But do we want to see it? Do we cultivate curiosity about the world around us? Or we are too busy with other things? Children need at least one companion who will share their admiration for the world. The youngest are very eager to participate in this type of activity, but they need support and encouragement. This potential is hidden in us, adults. This needs to be worked on.

Olimpia Orządała: Parents often throw this responsibility to schools and kindergartens. They think that’s the job of the teachers.

Joanna Godawa, PhD: You ‘ve raised a very important topic. So what does it look like in schools – do they go outside or not?

Olimpia Orządała: No, there is no time for that, because they have to complete the curriculum.

Joanna Godawa, PhD: It is said that school students have become hostages of their classrooms. The dream student is the one who sits politely for 45 minutes at the desk and listens. When they starts walkin, and yet children have a great need for movement, they become an uncomfortable, burdensome student. We repeat all the time that we are departing from encyclopaedia, we work on projects, we want children to come to certain truths on their own. But… do we really? Certainly we can say that we do, because there are many great teachers who are open, organise the learning process outside the school, take children for walks to watch the world… But is it a common practice? No. The 21st century can be called the century of crises: economic, health, ecological, we are also experiencing a crisis in education.

Olimpia Orządała: Teachers who conduct classes outside are in the minority.

Joanna Godawa, PhD: Unfortunately yes. Or at least in systemic education, because there exist alternative, forest institutions, schools or kindergartens with gardens, or those where children spend a lot of time outside and learn. We should strive to get closer to nature, because we really need it. We would be calmer, more relaxed, open to experiences and curious about the world. For this reason, forest baths – Shinrin-yoku were invented in Japan. Surely everyone has heard about the work ethic of the Japanese. As much as they work, they need rest. Also in Poland, the idea of forest baths is developing dynamically. People meet with a guide, enter the forest, practice mindfulness, breathing, being here and now, turn off the phone, learn to listen to each other again. But we still know little about it. Research under the Research Excellence Initiative covered parents from all over the country, from all 16 voivodeships of Poland. More than 50% of people do not know what forest bathing is. If they don’t know, then they didn’t participate.

Olimpia Orządała: Are there popular forest outposts in Poland?

Joanna Godawa, PhD: There is the Polish Forest Kindergarten Institute, which brings together all units. I think that they are becoming more and more popular, but unfortunately, they are not always available, as they are often located many kilometers away from our place of residence. However, there are many nature enthusiasts who introduce learning and being close to nature also in system schools. I’m very lucky because there are a lot of them around me. We inspire each other and there is great power in that!

Olimpia Orządała: As part of the ‘Freedom of research’ programme, you conducted a survey among parents of children attending primary schools. What other conclusions can be drawn from it?

Joanna Godawa, PhD: First of all, we aren’t fully aware that we have a deficit of contact with nature. Secondly, children spend little time outside during the week. Thirdly, parents don’t always know what is going on at school, whether children go outside during classes or not. The answers were diverse – the respondents found it difficult to determine how often their children went outside (daily, once a week, once a month). They also often don’t know whether there are teachers at school who help students to establish and cultivate a bond with nature. This part of education requires a lot of change.

Other interesting, but sad thing is when parents compared their childhood to their children’s life in terms of spending time outside, they were sorry and felt disappointed. What happened? I climbed trees and my child never did? Why did I have a lot of freedom, could explore the area, and my child is raised differently, is controlled all the time and doesn’t conquer the world in such a way?

Olimpia Orządała: What happened?

Joanna Godawa, PhD: Our life has changed. There are smartphones, social media… We have a different flow of information than before. We live in a culture of immediacy, universal availability, in times of excess. In the past, children were sent to summer camps and contacted sporadically throughout the two-week stay. Now we are in touch all the time, several times a day. I’m not saying technology is bad. Just like Richard Louv, I believe that the time spent online should be equal to the time spent outside.

Olimpia Orządała: What can we do to make education in harmony with nature more common?

Joanna Godawa, PhD: I think we need to talk about it. My experience shows that during meetings and conversations about nature, we realise that we have strayed away from nature. The majority of people who filled out the surveys answered that they would like to spend more time outside. When did we feel that we need nature? During the coronavirus pandemic, when the ban on entering the forests was introduced.

Olimpia Orządała: Everyone dreamed of the forest back then.

Joanna Godawa, PhD: Exactly. I am also the author of the concept of forest fairy tales that prepare children to live in nature. Sometimes when you can’t go outside, like during the pandemic, and you miss nature, you can read such a fairy tale with your child. It’s an opportunity to practice breathing and relaxation, you can also learn a lot of interesting information about animals and plants. Children love such stories.

Olimpia Orządała: Why is it so difficult to introduce changes in school in the field of education in harmony with nature?

Joanna Godawa, PhD: You have to be open to changes, reorganise teaching, notice the needs of children. This requires work and activities related to parents, teachers and school principals, meeting the needs of modern children living here and now. It takes some determination. Those who pursue this type of path feel fulfilled. I used to run the programme ‘Forest Fridays’, when I worked in kindergarten. We went to the forest every week, whatever the weather. Those were the best Fridays, I will always remember them. The children came back tired, dirty and hungry, but most of all happy and smiling. It was very satisfying for me. I think that the key is also in informal education, if at school we don’t have what we want. You just need to find time. I know parents who go on trips in small groups. They build gardens. I personally founded the Reader’s Club for children in Wisła, where we talk about nature, books and what is important in life, and in the garden on the terrace of the Municipal Public Library we grow strawberries, tomatoes and herbs. But first you have to want it, and this also requires strength to change the way we spend our free time. It pays off! A better relationship with nature is a great background to cultivate interpersonal relationships, which I recommend to all of us!

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