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We Cannot Allow Newtown to Become Anytown

In the land of the free and the home of the brave, how can we expect to create innovative new learning environments for our students and prepare them to be meaningful contributors to the 21st century when they are locked in their schools with armed guards standing watch at the doors? How can this possibly be conducive to learning and creative thought? This is America – leader of the free world – and our children deserve better. We need to find a way to make it so.

First and foremost, my condolences go out to all of the families who have lost loved ones in Newtown and in other cities around the country where mass shootings have occurred this past year. No citizen of this nation (or any country for that matter) should ever have to experience such grief and loss. However, in reality, there are many school systems in the United States where fear, violence and even death are a regular part of daily life for students. Unfortunately, we don’t pay attention until something terrible happens en masse in a place where we are least expecting it.

As parents, we are all concerned about keeping our children safe. Speaking from personal experience, the threat of strangers was my greatest fear when my children were young. In reality, though, it’s not an outsider but rather people known to the child, family or community who cause most incidents of violence. Such was the case in Newtown, Connecticut and other cities where mass killings have occurred. Worse still, many of these shooting incidents are students turning on fellow students in their own communities — an ominous warning of a growing malady among our youth that, if left untreated, will surely grow to epidemic proportions.

To be clear, this is not a blog about gun control, mental illness or major breaches of school security. While they are important topics, they only address the symptoms, not cure the ailment.

A convergence of factors has led us to where we are today. Increased populations place people in close proximity to one another in ever expanding urban areas. Poverty also plays a role. Children living in poverty are far more vulnerable to violence than other segments of the population. According to the National Poverty Center at the University of Michigan, in 2010, 16.4 million children under the age of 18, or 22.0 percent, were considered poor. That’s almost a quarter of our youth who are affected.

However, as we know, school violence is not confined to disadvantaged populations. In more affluent communities, tightly packed schedules and high expectations have pushed some kids to the breaking point. Standardized tests and school rankings pit students against one another in an unhealthy academic competition. Emotional and behavioral difficulties are on the rise and affect many aspects of children’s lives, including achievement in school, relationships with family and friends, and the risk of alcohol or substance abuse.

Further, kids’ lives are becoming more and more controlled. They are being confined to smaller spaces and tighter time frames, from car seats, strollers and the interior of the family SUV, to highly choreographed schedules that leave little time for free play and quiet reflection. And the stress of it all is beginning to manifest itself in unhealthy ways. Add to this mix easy access to dangerous weapons and the glamorization of violence and the results should be no surprise to anyone.

But does the pathology run deeper still? Alfie Kohn, author of What Does It Mean to Be Well Educated? And More Essays on Standards, Grading, and Other Follies, questions the basic structure of our American high schools and the way our students are being educated. He quotes Linda Darling-Hammond, professor of education at Stanford University who bases the following evaluation on what psychologists have identified as key human needs. She argues that

“Many well-known adolescent difficulties are not intrinsic to the teenage years but are related to the mismatch between adolescents’ developmental needs and the kinds of experiences most junior high and high schools provide. When students need close affiliation, they experience large depersonalized schools; when they need to develop autonomy, they experience few opportunities for choice and punitive approaches to discipline; when they need expansive cognitive challenges and opportunities to demonstrate their competence, they experience work focused largely on the memorization of facts…”

Kohn believes that American high schools not only fail to meet the individual needs of students, but often make a mockery of them. How do we expect our children to become leaders when they are afraid to make mistakes and are forced to follow a standardized plan that may or may not address their individual strengths and weaknesses?

In short, kids want to feel like what they do and say matters. They also want to have the ability and the opportunity to make competent decisions about things that affect their lives, and all our lives. Ultimately, they want to feel connected to others… And, when kids feel like they belong, they are far more likely to want to nurture those connections, whether it is bonds formed with other students, teachers, their community or the world at large.

This is where I believe including environmental education in school curricula has the potential to make a significant difference in engaging students in their own learning processes and encouraging them to start taking responsibility for their personal acquisition of knowledge. Ultimately, it’s not about the grade or the test score or the class ranking. It’s what you know – that incredible sense of entitlement, and responsibility, when you gather into yourself the vast reality of this world. Needless to say, acquiring that knowledge is powerful and personally transformative.

Environment-based education uses human habitats and natural spaces as context across various disciplines of study. The program is characterized by kids exploring the local community and natural surroundings, with hands-on experiences of environmental discovery and problem solving, and learning that accommodates students’ individual skills and abilities. Research shows that this approach delivers many benefits to students. Results show that students tend to improve their overall GPA’s and stay in school longer. They develop critical thinking skills, experience improved motivation, more responsible behavior, and a sense of environmental stewardship. Students also show more cooperation and improved conflict resolution skills that will go a long way toward eliminating personal frustrations that can result in violent acts such as the terrible shootings that continue to plague our country.

Violence is everywhere. More locks and more guns are not going to make it go away. We need to find effective ways to connect with each other and the world around us in order to heal our social ills. It is my sincere wish that 2013 will see real and meaningful change in this regard… and that we will make the health and welfare of our children our #1 priority. If we don’t get this right, nothing else will matter.

Best wishes for a happy and healthy New Year.

Elizabeth

Post script: In the aftermath of the unfathomable tragedy at Sandy Hook elementary school, a platoon of golden retrievers – some of nature’s finest – were called in to ease the pain of a wounded community. Their soft fur, wet noses and unconditional love eased the fears of frightened children and warmed the hearts of many… Living proof that we are truly all in this together!


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Connecting with Nature on Horseback – Part One

They come to the barn with burdens no child should have to bear. Some children are ill and some have been injured, while others are completely overwhelmed by family circumstances beyond their control. Many are incapacitated by mental or physical impairments that prevent them from fully experiencing the joys of childhood.

I have been a therapeutic riding volunteer for many years, working with a wide range of children, from autistic and physically handicapped riders, to kids with attention deficit and behavioral challenges. I have also worked with kids who just want to get outside and ride. No matter what brings them to the barn, it’s not long before riders begin to experience the truly transformative power of the horse/human connection.

Imagine you’re a child again and mounting a horse for the first time. For any child it takes a great deal of courage. Some of these kids are barely able to sit upright without help. Other children are bombarded with an overload of sensory stimuli that they are unable to sort out on their own. Still others are truly afraid, asked to place their trust in a horse when they haven’t been able to count on the humans in their lives, let alone a 1000-pound animal with feet the size of saucers. But, step-by-step, their fear turns to fascination and infirmity is replaced by an unseen strength that coaxes them to sit a little taller and experience the world from a new vantage point.

The sensory reinforcement of a trail ride on horseback is so powerful that children with learning disabilities often respond in ways that cannot be accomplished in any other setting. As they ride through the fields and into the woods, many of these children become keenly aware of their surroundings and are able to fully engage in the natural world all around them for the first time. They will turn to notice a tiny goldfinch perched on a thistle plant and recite the word “yellow”. They may listen to the sound of their horse’s feet on a wooden bridge and count to five. Many children will close their eyes and smile as they feel a warm breeze on their faces… all seemingly small steps, but milestones in their journey toward self-awareness, understanding and expression.

It is unclear how the horse/human relationship came to be. However, one thing is clear, horses have been helping humans for thousands of years. The partnership between man and horse has had a tremendous impact on the societal evolution of our species. While we generally think of evolution in terms of human advancement with little regard for the journey of other species, our history on earth is relatively short compared to that of the horse. Surprisingly, Equus caballus, the ancient ancestor of the modern horse, has been evolving for fifty-five million years compared to the one million years that humans have been walking the planet.

Is it possible they have lessons to teach us? Take a horseback ride along a wooded trail and you’ll know immediately that it’s a lesson about shared experience between human and horse — sharing the moment and sharing the natural world all around you.

And what is it about the nature of a horse that evokes such emotional responses in people? I’ve asked myself the same question a million times. I have worked with horses since I was a young girl and have experienced first hand their restorative abilities. I have a shelf lined with books on the subject and journals filled with notes. The incidents of horses healing humans are not isolated, they’re commonplace. And its not just horses… Ask our soldiers in the Middle East about the bonds they’ve developed with service dogs that have stood beside them despite terrible conditions. Some will tell you that these animals have even saved their lives.

South African veterinarian and researcher Johannes Odendaal has written extensively on the topic and paved the way for greater acceptance of the healing power of animals. His premise is that all humans need attention on a basic emotional level for successful social interactions. Odendaal believed that the successful use of a companion animal was most commonly found among people who were unable to connect with other humans in meaningful and fulfilling ways. His research has shown that substituting animal for human is the basis of animal therapy. Further research has proven that significant chemical changes occur in the brains of both human and animal during these interactions. In the fast-paced world we live in today, this form of therapy may become invaluable as the demographic of people who are unable (or unwilling) to communicate in “meaningful and fulfilling ways” increases to include a broader segment of the population than Odendaal ever envisioned.

Animal therapy provides interesting insights into the back-to-nature movement that is gaining momentum around the world. The authentic nature of the horse gives kids permission to respond with similar authenticity, allowing for non-judgmental companionship and the freedom to express true emotions that often transcend speech. The process of trial-and-error with a willing and animated companion is an excellent way for children to learn about appropriate behaviors, responsibility and sensitivity to others in the animal and the human world. This type of interaction is one clear example of the lessons nature can teach us about life.

It is virtually impossible for me to condense all of my thoughts on equine therapy into a single blog, so more to come at a later date.

In the meantime, if you’re looking for a fun activity to get your kids outside and active, consider signing them up for riding lessons or go for a family trail ride. You may connect with nature in ways you never thought possible!

Happy Trails,

Elizabeth