Plug These Kids Back Into Nature

By Bill Street
“I like to play indoors better ’cause that’s where all the electrical outlets are.” –Suburban fifth-grader

Of all the lamentations about the “good old days,” perhaps none is as regrettable as the sea change that has occurred in terms of where our children play. No longer are the sandlots, community creeks, or the tracts of woods abutting neighborhoods the places where kids wear familiar dirt paths to secret hideouts or tree forts where only the ever-changing password could get you in.

Many of our watery playgrounds have found a similar fate. Some of my most cherished childhood memories are of walking in my father’s wake, wading amid the tidal underwater grasses. Our prey: softshell crabs. For my dad, it was the thrill of the hunt, and of course, the delectable bounty at day’s end.

But for me, it was enough to be down by the river, sloshing around, delighting in a young boy’s first adventures as hunter-gatherer. Like so much else, much of those underwater grasses have since disappeared, overtaken by the murky sediment and algae that are choking the James River and the rest of Virginia’s waters.

When our mothers told us to “go outside and play,” we had plenty to choose from–and, typically, whatever we decided to do, there were any number of kids outside to do it with. Not so today. We are raising a generation of young people whose childhoods literally have been tethered to electrical outlets. Video and computer games. TiVo and YouTube. Getting together after school is more likely to be online–via MySpace or Facebook–than a place where there are trees or bugs or sunshine.

This self-imposed house arrest of our children has reached an epidemic level, and it is not without its consequences. A growing body of research is underscoring the fact that this “nature deficit-disorder”–a term coined by author Richard Louv in his seminal work, Last Child in the Woods, to describe our kids’ lack of connectedness to their natural environs–is contributing to a wide range of destructive childhood issues, including depression, attention disorders, and obesity.

Childhood obesity is but one telling byproduct of a sequestered generation. Is it any coincidence that some 25 million American children and teens are overweight–twice the number who were considered too heavy just 20 years ago?

Numbers like those have propelled a special subcommittee in the Virginia General Assembly to study the issue and make recommendations. While there has been considerable attention focused on what kids are eating in school, not enough emphasis has been placed on getting our kids outside and into nature.

Outdoor experiences also are a critical element in developing the personal connections and appreciation for nature needed to protect natural resources. As a growing population continues to place greater demands and pressure on the environment, we must also strengthen our resolve to safeguard the health of the environment.

Environmental education programs, nature centers, parks, and natural areas within our communities provide crucial opportunities today to ignite a sense of wonder in our children about the natural world.

Connecting our children to the outdoors has other compelling benefits. Schools that hold classes outside and use other forms of experiential education improve student test scores in social studies, science, language arts, and math.

One outdoor science program in California saw test scores jump 27 percent. Other studies show similar gains in improving student self-esteem, problem-solving, and motivation to learn. Research at the University of Illinois found that when students as young as five spent time in natural settings their symptoms of attention-deficit disorder were markedly reduced.

Results such as these have begun to accelerate a children-and-nature movement throughout the country. Here in Richmond, VA, parents and policymakers alike had the chance to hear first-hand how to go about reconnecting our kids to the natural world around them. Louv participated in a public forum in early November. His insights provide practical solutions for unplugging our children from videos and, like generations before them, plugging them into nature.

For the health of our environment and the health of our children, we need to make this a priority.–Times-Dispatch