‘Before Today, I Was Afraid of Trees’ – Rethinking Nature Deficit Disorder

By Doug Larkin

Illustrator: Scott Bakal

Illustration: Scott Bakal

The last week of February turned out to be the peak of the maple-sugaring season that winter, and an inch of snow remained on the ground as the juniors in my chemistry class disembarked from the bus. Kevin Kopp, our guide, met us with empty buckets, and he talked about the trees as we took a short walk around. The students ran their hands over the bark of the oaks, beeches, and maples with an uncharacteristic quietness as our guide talked about the different types of trees in downtown Trenton’s Cadwalader Park.

For the moment, it was possible to imagine that we were somewhere other than urban central New Jersey. To many of my students it was a revelation that we were not actually standing in a natural forest, but in a place where each of the towering trees had been purposefully planted decades ago. Their questions led to a discussion about how trees in urban environments not only look nice, but also help clean the air and lower energy costs by reducing the amount of sunlight absorbed by city surfaces on hot days.

When Kevin pointed out holes in one tree drilled by yellow-bellied sapsuckers, a group of students began racing from tree to tree, seeing who could be the first to find and run their fingers over undiscovered sapsucker holes. Another group raised their eyes to the treetops, looking for the birds. Kevin held up the metal spout and asked if anyone would like to hammer in the first tap.

“Ain’t it gonna hurt the tree?” asked one of my more solemn students. Kevin assured him that it wouldn’t. We tapped two trees that day, and everyone who wanted a turn hammering got one. When the first bucket was finally hung from the tap, the students were clearly less than impressed with the leisurely dripdripdrip of the watery tree sap. After explaining that the buckets would fill over the next few days, Kevin promised to bring them to us at school.

A Surprising Confession

We thanked Kevin, boarded our bus, and returned to school shortly before the end of the 80-minute block period. Back in the classroom, one of my African American students pulled me aside, saying, “I have to tell you something.” At the beginning of the semester in January, she had loudly proclaimed to the whole class that she didn’t like science. Though she dutifully completed her chemistry assignments, little in science class had seemed to hold meaning for her. So I was hoping for one of those minor teaching vindications, the kind of small victory that keeps weather-beaten teachers in urban schools coming back year after year. What she said, however, was more profound: “Before today, I was afraid of trees.”

This wasn’t what I expected a popular high school junior—or anyone else, for that matter—to say, so I asked her to explain. She laughed and said with a shrug: “They’re big and scary, and their bark is all rough-looking.” She went on to describe how nature and the outdoors in general had always seemed somehow dangerous to her.

In thinking about what ideas my students might have about maple syrup-making, a fear of trees had genuinely never occurred to me. I’ve looked over state and national high school science standards carefully since then, and none of them include anything about making students feel comfortable around trees. Yet there it was as an unintended and valuable outcome of the trip.

Nature Deficit Disorder?

Science teachers in urban schools often serve students whose experiences with the natural environment are more obviously constrained by human factors than their suburban or rural counterparts. At the same time, parents and teachers are contending with an increase in sedentary indoor activities that have affected youth of every demographic. Coupled with the shrinking opportunities many children have for experiencing nature in an unbounded form, these factors can lead to a lack of familiarity with the fundamental features of ecology and the natural world. Journalist Richard Louv (2005) has called the resulting situation “nature deficit disorder,” a term that has resonated strongly with the environmental education community.

Yet those of us with an understanding of the history of multicultural education have good reason to be suspicious of any terminology that causes teachers to view specific students from a “deficit” perspective. Though Louv is careful to describe the deficit as applying to children’s experiences with the natural world, like many diagnostic labels it can become affixed to students themselves. Historically, such deficit language has been commonly used to marginalize students already struggling for success in schools. Rather than explore options that seek to build upon students’ strengths, experiences, and prior understandings of the world, notions of cultural deprivation or deficiency have been used to explain away the failures of teachers to be effective in teaching such students.

Environmental Education as Consciousness-Raising

Administrators are fond of saying—particularly around testing season in the spring—that every teacher teaches reading, and every teacher teaches math. I agree with this perspective, but will argue that we must all be environmental educators as well. This is especially important for science teachers because fundamental ideas in biology, chemistry, physics, and earth science are crucial to making sense of pressing environmental issues such as climate change, industrial pollution, radioactive waste, food safety, and the destruction and alteration of habitats.

Three related goals frame most environmental education efforts. The first is to foster and sustain a love of nature. The second is to gain a scientific understanding of the environment, with knowledge of the factors, processes, and interrelationships that describe and explain the living world. The last is to help students make intelligent and informed choices about where they live (defined as anywhere from the local neighborhood to the planet), which may or may not include a specific focus on social and environmental justice. These goals demand that students be provided with the attitudes, tools, and skills for action on their world. All are important, but depending on the school and the teacher, they may be prioritized differently.

In schools such as mine where students have been marginalized and oppressed, these three goals may also serve the purpose of what Paulo Freire called conscientization. To Freire, conscientization was “learning to perceive social, political, and economic contradictions, and to take action against the oppressive elements of reality” (1970, p. 35). One need only look to people such as John Muir, Rachel Carson, and (nowadays) Van Jones to see what conscientization looks like in an environmental sense. In his descriptions of the “criminalization of natural play,” Louv frames the public and private restrictions on children’s experiences with nature as a form of oppression, and his book is indeed a call to action.

With these ideas in mind, I often tried to push beyond the traditional sequence of topics in the discipline—which usually follows a predictable progression from properties of matter, through atomic theory and bonding, to the study of chemical reactions—to practical questions concerning the environment. Some chemistry curricula (e.g., ChemCom) provide connections to environmental issues, and I often drew from these resources for teaching. There are countless possible links between chemistry and environmental justice, but like any curriculum, how far these go depends on the teacher.

For example, in my chemistry class that year, my students examined the suitability of Yucca Mountain as a repository for nuclear waste as part of our nuclear chemistry unit. Later, during a lesson on ions, we watched clips from the movie Erin Brockovich as a catalyst for discussion of both environmental justice and the electron configuration of hexavalent chromium (Cr+6).

In a high school class, being able to connect matters of environmental justice to chemistry is dependent upon students’ ability to recognize their personal connections to these issues as well. That’s why I’m glad I stopped ignoring Kopp’s emails and got my students out tapping maple trees.

Tapping into Community Resources

Kevin Kopp is a well-known environmental educator in the central New Jersey area. I had dismissed his program announcements for many months because many of the activities seemed geared to younger students. One of his emails finally caught my attention:

Bring your class to Cadwalader Park and learn about one of the true wonders of nature. This is a special program on maple sugaring and making maple syrup. Through stories and hands-on activities, students will learn about the legends, history, and modern practices of making maple syrup. Each group will tap a tree, collect sap, and taste some Cadwalader Park maple syrup.

The idea that trees in our city could produce maple syrup was too good to pass up. Not only would this trip to Cadwalader Park—a place that had been publicized in recent years more for its violent crimes than for its environmental features—provide students with a solid connection between food, chemistry, and the environment, it would also be a way to develop their critical consciousness. Why was something like maple syrup, which could be gathered from trees in their neighborhoods, only a trace ingredient in the commercial packages of syrup that came with school breakfast? Pushing further, we could also ask who controls where our food comes from and why. If food exists naturally in places like our city park, where else does it grow? And what responsibility does that place on us to ensure a world that sustains these and other resources for current and future generations? Not thinking about these issues is an element of Louv’s nature deficit disorder description, but we can just as well consider it a form of oppression imposed by the modern world. My thinking was that if students could see their own city differently, it would open up possibilities for further exploration.

Although I hadn’t planned to teach solutions and molarity for another two months, it proved simple enough to develop an appropriate lesson on concentration that related to the task of boiling down syrup.

Kevin and I constructed a minimalist plan for the trip over email, agreeing to the approach of simply tapping the trees and telling stories along the way. He would focus on the history and process of maple sugaring, and I would inject science ideas into the narrative wherever appropriate. In preparation, I found myself reading widely about the science of maple sap, and reconsidering some of my own ideas about how it was produced. I would be remiss if I did not mention that I had to review most of the tree biology I had ever learned.

Kitchen Chemistry

The week after the trip, Kevin delivered two full five-gallon buckets to our class. According to our plan, one was full of the maple sap and the other was tap water. We set students the challenge of identifying each without tasting. Within a short time, lab groups were scribbling possible procedures in their notebooks. One of the liquids was clear and the other was cloudy. I informed them that in itself wasn’t enough to prove their identities. After all, these buckets of liquid had been sitting outside for a few days. This and the fact that our chemistry lab equipment was not “food grade” was why I ruled out tasting the unpasteurized liquids.

Once I had approved their procedures for safety and feasibility, they were permitted to proceed with their ideas for testing the two liquids. Though I had hoped that at least one group would examine the densities of the two liquids, as soon as the first lab group started a Bunsen burner with an evaporating dish, the rest of the class took the hint and quickly followed suit. Before the end of the period, many of the dishes contained a brown syrup in the bottom. There was still some skepticism on the part of the students that this was actually the same stuff they would put on waffles—especially because I wouldn’t let them taste it.

The next week, I brought in some saucepans from home. Careful to keep the food preparation area in the back of the room clean, safe, and free of any lab equipment that could potentially contaminate the syrup, I tried to boil down the sap on an electric hotplate, but scorched my first test batch during homeroom. I asked student volunteers from my morning physics classes to help me by stirring the sap and continually adding more whenever the mixture started to get too concentrated. By the time my chemistry class arrived in the afternoon, I had about 50 mL of Cadwalader Park syrup ready, and together we started another batch boiling down.

Though a formal study of chemical reactions was still weeks away, there would hardly be a more opportune time to discuss the chemistry of cooking. I did a brief demonstration of the differences between baking soda and baking powder, showing how each needed an acid in an aqueous solution in order to release the carbon dioxide. We examined the ingredients in a box of store-bought mix. Then, using a griddle from home, I whipped up a batch of pancakes, cutting them open to point out the role of the carbon dioxide in the rising of the batter as it cooked. In order not to break my own rules about food in the lab, we remained in the front half of the classroom as I passed out paper plates and plastic forks, and not a single student passed on the opportunity to eat pancakes with syrup they had literally traced to its roots. Later that week, a number of my students composed an email to Kevin. It read:

Dear Mr. Kopp,
This is Mr. Larkin’s class.
Bucket #1: Water
Bucket #2: Sap
We realized this after scientifically heating the evaporating dishes. After around five to 10 minutes the water began to evaporate from both dishes. Soon dish #2 began to turn a brownish color, while dish #1 just evaporated until nothing was left. When we first examined the contents of containers 1 and 2, container #2 had a cloudy color that differed from container #1. The sense of smell around the dishes was also different.
Thank you for your time.

Edwin, Kamal, Julio, Kenyatta,
DeShawn, Yessenia, Sonia, and the rest of our period 6/7 chemistry class

Cultivating a Naturalist Intelligence

When I originally proposed the maple-sugaring trip to my students, they were eager to do something out of the ordinary, but expressed doubts that we would really be doing chemistry. It was not unusual in their experience to go on a “fun” field trip with the loosest of ties to any learning goals. I have certainly seen well-meaning teachers organize such outings, and I suspect that some of them were rooted in deficit notions about the experiences—often suburban in character—teachers feel students need to be considered educated.

Some teachers might see my student’s admission about her fear of trees as deficient or even pathological. Undoubtedly, her prior ideas about trees were influenced by the broad societal forces described by Louv that teach children to avoid having direct experiences with nature. Though Louv’s critique is meant to apply widely to modern childhood, in reality those most likely to be constructed as deficient are those living in urban environments. Given the residential demographics of the United States, it is also true that these children are more likely than not to be children of color. Louv has given voice to a vitally important idea, but his deficit language is ultimately harmful to students who could benefit from its implications. What’s an urban environmental educator to do?

In a revision to his list of multiple intelligences, Howard Gardner added the notion of a naturalist intelligence and described it as the intelligence that “enables human beings to recognize, categorize, and draw upon certain features of the environment” (1999, p. 48). Rather than viewing a student’s understanding of the natural world as a deficit to be remediated, Gardner’s work suggests that student ideas and experiences are a starting point for developing this intelligence. Yet doing so entails more than just letting students loose in nature, though that isn’t always a bad idea. As teachers, we need to understand not only our students’ prior knowledge about the natural world, but the ways in which they think about and experience it as well.

I recently observed a lesson in an urban middle school. The white teacher from a suburban background had instructed her students (who were all African American) to go outside and look at the sky every night in order to collect data on the phases of the moon. Sitting in the back of the room, I heard one young girl say to her friend that she couldn’t do the assignment because she was not allowed to go outside at night where she lived. Although such a situation might be considered as one more example of how nature deficit disorder has severed students’ connections with the natural world, a different perspective might reveal this restriction as a rational parental response to living in a dangerous neighborhood. Had the teacher known more about her students’ lives, she could have intentionally structured the activity differently, perhaps by anticipating times when moon observations could be made during daylight hours. Doing so would have built upon the opportunities students actually had for engaging with the natural world, rather than relying on assumptions the teacher had constructed that were based on her own life experiences.

It’s equally important, however, that urban educators don’t make the assumption that students in their schools have minimal experience with the natural world. Some students and their families may come from or regularly visit rural areas. Others, such as the Hmong students I taught in Wisconsin, may hunt in nearby forests, leveraging their rich cultural understanding of the natural world to a new ecosystem quite different from the hills of Southeast Asia.

Rather than viewing students as having nature deficit disorder, teachers can develop students’ naturalist intelligence and critical consciousness by building on the ways they actually experience the world. Educators can extend Louv’s ideas into formal science classrooms (without the deficit language baggage) by seeking to cultivate more opportunities for natural experiences. The environmental knowledge used by a student to ride the subway system across town to school in New York City is quite different in character from that of the suburban New Jersey youth who plays soccer every Saturday on a grassy field, and different also from that used by the teenager in rural Pennsylvania to plant corn and milk cows. Yet all are forms of environmental knowledge that hold opportunities for teachers to meet students where they are in their thinking about the connections between the human-influenced environment and the natural world.

They also give science teachers good reasons to make pancakes and syrup in class.


American Chemical Society. Chemistry in the Community. New York: W. H. Freeman and Company, 2006.

Freire, Paulo. Pedagogy of the Oppressed. New York: Herder and Herder, 1970.

Gardner, Howard. Intelligence Reframed: Multiple Intelligences for the 21st Century. New York: Basic Books, 1999.

Louv, Richard. Last Child in the Woods: Saving Our Children from Nature-Deficit Disorder (1st ed.). Chapel Hill, N.C.: Algonquin Books, 2005.

Doug Larkin (larkind@mail.montclair.edu) teaches in the department of curriculum and teaching at Montclair State University in Montclair, N.J. Student names have been changed.