Monday, May 27, 2024

A Theory About Walls

For most of human history we spent most of our days outdoors, on and near savannas, under canopies, only retreating to our nooks and dens when darkness, weather, or predators drove us there. These are the conditions for which our minds evolved. Even later in the human story, once we begin constructing shelters, they were mostly one room affairs in which everyone spent their indoor time, cooking, eating, and sleeping together. I'm thinking of ancient Viking longhouses, for instance, in which entire villages resided under a single roof. Even medieval castles were built around a single great room in which most of the living was done, although by all accounts most people spent most of their days outdoors.

We've not shaken our need for spending time outside. Research consistently shows that our minds work better when we're outdoors, being outside makes us smarter, we tend to be more relaxed, more creative, and, generally, happier while freed from our ceilings and walls. Even having a view from one's office window, even just having some natural light, has been shown to be beneficial to our overall well-being, but nothing really tops being fully outside, preferably surrounded by nature.

It's hard to understand why we, as a species, at least in the developed world are increasingly opting for life indoors, when there are so many benefits to being outdoors. But I recently came across a theory that at least makes a little sense. The basic premise is that during most of our existence, survival was closely attached to the old "safety in numbers" idea. We stuck together because to be on your own put you in danger. The result of always being in proximity with others was that a great deal of our consciousness was taken up with keeping track of what the other people (and animals for that matter) were up to. When someone moves, we tend to watch to see where they are going. When they speak, we listen. When they tap out a rhythm we're likely to tap along. 

This was, for our evolutionary predecessors, what life was all about, but to us moderns, these are the sort of things that drive us crazy. Hey, I'm trying to concentrate here! What do we do to escape the "noise"? Some of us might go outside if we have access to a natural space, but it's almost as hard to concentrate out there because, well, Birds! Butterflies! Trees! Breeze! No, if the goal is to think abstractly we tend go into another room and shut the door. 

"Our distant ancestors could see each other at all times," maintains John Locke, professor of linguistics at Lehman College of the City University of New York, "which kept them safe but also imposed a huge cognitive cost . . . When  residential walls were erected, they eliminated the need to look around every few seconds to see what others were doing . . . freeing up many hours of undistracted time per day."

As science writer Annie Murphy Paul writes in her new book The Extended Mind, "Historically, society's demand for increasingly abstract thought combined with the growing density of human habitation to create a need for . . . walls. Walls became necessary as a way of relieving the mental strain that comes along with closely packed populations of unfamiliar others. For most of human history, after all, people lived with their family members in one-room dwellings. Everyone they knew lived not far from their front door, and it was useful to keep track of others' comings and goings." In the modern world, however, we need "spaces in which to read, think, and write -- alone."

In my practice as an early childhood educator, I've always strived to ensure that the children spend at least half of their days outdoors, no matter the weather. I've witnessed with my own eyes the cognitive and emotional benefits of removing the walls and ceilings. As my dearly departed friend and pioneer of the forest kindergarten movement Erin Kenny liked to say, "Children cannot bounce off the walls if we take away the walls." 

My instinct is to outright reject this theory about walls, but I try to have an open mind, especially since, whether I like it or not, more and more of us are opting for life in cities and contained by walls. An increasing percentage of us are spending entire days with minimal exposure to the sky. We must literally fight to get our children outdoors as we, as a society, turn more and more inward, more and more toward abstract thought. 

Currently our school rooms have a great deal in common with those Viking longhouses, with everyone spending their days all together in one big room. We are expecting these children to engage in abstract thought at younger and younger ages; even our preschoolers are being subjected to academic learning. Yet the mental strain of being in rooms packed with people (class size anyone?) means they will inevitably struggle to concentrate because every few seconds they must check into see what the others are doing. 

If this theory about walls is true, then are more walls the answer to encouraging more and better abstract thought? I sure hope not. Our schools are already too much like prisons and creating individual "concentration" cells won't help matters. The alternative, is to go outside, although that's an option that school-ish control freaks don't want to hear about because it sounds too much like setting the children free. But if more and more abstract thinking is really the future, then we have no choice but to get our children, and everyone, outdoors where most of us tend to do our best thinking.

The great philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche was famous for two things: his ability to engage in abstract thought and his enthusiasm for the outdoors. As he said, "Sit as little as possible; do not believe any idea that was not born in the open air and of free movement." He was a prolific walker and hiker, spending entire days afoot, usually in natural places. Indeed, as author Rebecca Solnit details in her book Wanderlust, many, if not most, of our greatest abstract thinkers were likewise great walkers. As she writes, "Exploring the world is one of the best ways of exploring the mind." Indeed, she points out, the human brain seems to work best while outdoors, moving "at three miles per hour."

My favorite days as an educator have always been walking field trips: taking the kids on a ramble around the neighborhood. We would curl our fingers through cyclone fencing to watch the construction workers, pick bouquets of dandelions, and generally just notice and discuss the world around us. We rarely make it up to three miles per hour because our legs are short and every block is dense with information that we need to process. The ancient Greeks like Socrates, Plato, and Aristotle made the walk-and-talk central to their educational "system." 

It seems that we need a lot more of that in education.

I've been writing about play-based learning almost every day for the past 14 years. I've recently gone back through the 4000+ blog posts(!) I've written since 2009. Here are my 10 favorite in a nifty free download. Click here to get yours.

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