As an Arlington,Virginia-based author, educator, and designer who specializes creating in outdoor learning spaces that connect children to nature, I am writing to advocate for consideration that screen time be balanced with outdoor time. Time outdoors in green spaces with full spectrum light and fresh air is not just "nice to have", it is essential for human health, and especially for countering the detrimental effects of screen time on growing bodies and minds.
Abundant research (https://research.childrenandnature.org/research-library/) tells us that outdoor time has a positive effect on children's mental and physical health-- specifically on depression, stress, obesity, and eye health all of which are adversely impacted by excessive screen time.
As RIchard Louv, author and advocate, states in his book, The Nature Principal, “The future will belong to the nature-smart—those individuals, families, businesses, and political leaders who develop a deeper understanding of the transformative power of the natural world and who balance the virtual with the real. The more high-tech we become, the more nature we need.” http://richardlouv.com/books/nature-principle/
Childhood has changed in many ways from the way it was 20 or 50 years ago. The majority of children in the past likely had the opportunity to roam more freely outdoors, to find the nature they needed in out of school hours. Today's children are much less likely to have the unstructured time or the freedom to play in the out-of-doors, so it is our responsibility to bring that nature to the places where we allow children to spend their time-- which includes their schoolyards.
During the pandemic schools and districts across the country from Maine to Texas and from New York City to California have embraced outdoor learning as a way to safely return to in-person school. In addition to a 20x lower rate of contagion of the COVID virus, these educators, parents, and children discovered that time outdoors increased children's ability to focus and learn, their opportunities for full-body multi-sensory engagement, and measurably increased their joy and happiness. Our children have experienced multiple traumas during the lockdown and before. Their healing, health, and happiness must be a priority. With good design and a modest investment in teacher training and infrastructure (including equally warm and dry clothing for everyone), it is possible to teach anything and everything outdoors in a wide range of weather conditions.
Since early in the pandemic my organization has brought together hundreds of experts in health, curriculum, design, planning, and policy to create the National Outdoor Learning Library https://www.greenschoolyards.org/covid-learn-outside, a free and comprehensive set of resources available to help schools and districts plan for outdoor learning during COVID and beyond. Many state departments of education across the country have referenced our resources as they create guidelines, and I urge Virginia to consider this too. https://www.greenschoolyards.org/case-studies-intro
At present, especially in Northern Virginia, many public schools have embraced outdoor learning and all that it offers. Many of these outdoor spaces have been developed through parent advocacy and fundraising, most prevalent in areas where parents have the time and the means to volunteer and donate. This has resulted in children in low income communities less likely to have access to the academic, physical, and mental health benefits that time in green spaces offer. Outdoor learning has become an environmental justice issue and an equity issue.
Every Virginia child deserves to be not only tech literate, but also nature literate, and every child deserves the health and happiness that comes with equitable opportunities to learn outside.