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Kids and nature

The great disconnect

Sunday, June 19, 2005 (The Oregonian)


One evening when my boys were younger, Matthew, then 10, looked at me from across a restaurant table and said quite seriously, "Dad, how come it was more fun when you were a kid?"

I asked what he meant.

"Well, you're always talking about your woods and tree houses, and how you used to ride that horse down near the swamp."

At first, I thought he was irritated with me. I had, in fact, been telling him what it was like to use string and pieces of liver to catch crawdads in a creek, something I'd be hard-pressed to find a child doing these days. Like many parents, I do tend to romanticize my own childhood -- and, I fear, too readily discount my children's experiences of play and adventure.

But my son was serious; he felt he had missed out on something important. He was right. Within the space of a few decades, the way children understand and experience nature has changed radically.

From the Northwest to the Southeast, most parents in urban, suburban and rural areas say the same thing -- children aren't playing outside anymore, not in the woods or the fields or the canyons. And children say the same thing, in their way.

One fifth-grader put it succinctly: "I like to play indoors better 'cause that's where all the electrical outlets are."

The polarity of the child-nature relationship has reversed. As a boy, I was unaware that my woods were ecologically connected with any other forests. Nobody in the 1950s talked about acid rain or holes in the ozone layer or global warming.

But I knew my woods and my fields; I knew every bend in the creek and dip in the beaten dirt paths. I wandered those woods even in my dreams. Kids today can likely tell you about the Amazon rain forest -- but not about the last time they explored the woods in solitude, or lay in a field listening to the wind and watching the clouds move.

The growing child-nature gap has profound implications for the future, including the mental, physical and spiritual health of generations to come -- and for the Earth itself.

Parents cite several everyday reasons why their children spend less time in nature than they themselves did. Among them: diminishing access to natural areas; competition with electronic entertainment; increased homework, longer school hours and other time pressures.

A 2005 report, "Generation M: Media in the Lives of 8 to 18 Year Olds," conducted by the Kaiser Family Foundation, reveals that kids' average weekly electronic media exposure is almost 60 hours, more time than most parents spend on full-time jobs. Sixty-eight percent of young people have TVs in their rooms; half of all youths live in homes where TVs are on most or all of the time, whether anyone is watching or not.

Also this year, the UCLA Center on Everyday Lives of Families reports that during the week parents and children are in constant motion, racing between school, games, shopping, work -- and that American kids spend virtually no time in their own yards.

Our children's world -- limitless in cyberspace -- is shrinking in reality. A 1991 study, reported in the journal Environment and Behavior, found that by 1990 the radius around the home where children were allowed to roam on their own had shrunk to one-ninth of what it had been in 1970.

Oregon, with its abundance of natural spaces and protected rural lands, would seem to be one of those exceptions. Easier access to nature does make it simpler for children to experience the wonders of the outdoors. But a recently released study by The Center for Rural Pennsylvania showed childhood obesity increasing twice as fast in rural areas as in urban neighborhoods.

Diet is a factor, but children in rural Oregon also play the same video games and watch the same television as their counterparts in Portland. Availability of nearby nature counts; but other factors are just as powerful.

The fear factor

Most of all, parents cite fear -- of traffic, nature itself and, most of all, strangers. This fear is felt nearly as intensely in suburban Overland Park, Kan., as it is in urban Philadelphia. One suburban father told me: "I want to know where my kid is 24 hours a day, seven days a week. I want to know where that kid is. Which house. Which square foot. Which telephone number."

I understand that fear and have felt it as a parent. But consider the facts. The number of abductions by strangers has been falling for years, and most abductors are family members.

U.S. children are safer now than they have been at any time since 1975, and violent victimization of children has dropped by more than 38 percent, according to Duke University's 2005 Child Well Being Index. What has increased is round-the-clock news coverage of a few tragedies, coverage that is conditioning families to live in a state of fear.

Society is sending an unintended message to children -- nature is the past, electronics are the future and the bogeyman lives in the woods. This script is delivered in schools, families, even organizations devoted to the outdoors and codified into the legal and regulatory structures of many of our communities. This message is effectively banning much of the kind of play we enjoyed as children.

Ironically, at the very moment when more children than ever before are unplugged from nature, science is finally demonstrating just how important direct contact with the outdoors is to healthy human development. Some of the most intriguing research has been inspired by Edward O. Wilson's "biophilia" hypothesis.

Wilson, a Harvard University scientist and Pulitzer Prize-winning author, defines biophilia as "the urge to affiliate with other forms of life." He and his colleagues argue that humans have an innate affinity for the natural world, probably a biologically based need integral to our development as individuals. In short, we need experience in nature more than we know.

Most of the new evidence that connects nature to well-being has focused on adults, but during the past decade scientists have begun to study the impact of nearby nature on child development. For example, environmental psychologists reported in 2003 that nature in or around the home -- or simply a room with a view of a natural landscape -- helped protect the psychological well-being of the children.

Researchers also have found that children with disabilities gain enhanced body image and positive behavior changes through direct interaction with nature. Studies of outdoor-education programs geared toward troubled youths -- especially those diagnosed with mental-health problems -- show a clear therapeutic value.

Researchers at the Human-Environment Research Laboratory at the University of Illinois discovered children as young as 5 showed a significant reduction in the symptoms of Attention-Deficit Disorder when they engaged with nature. Could nature therapy could be a new option for ADD treatment?

Two recent national studies on schools that use outdoor classrooms and other direct-experience methods showed these programs produced student gains in social studies, science, language arts and math. The programs improved standardized test scores and grade-point averages and enhanced skills in problem-solving, critical thinking and decision-making. Not to mention reductions in discipline and behavior problems.

People and policymakers who care about children and the future of the environment need to know about such research. For the most part, they don't. Some school districts are increasing the use of outdoor classrooms, but many more are shortening or eliminating recess and even building schools without playgrounds.

Nationally, we see dramatic increases in childhood obesity, attention difficulties and depression. When these issues are discussed at the conference table or the kitchen table, direct childhood experience in nature is seldom mentioned.

A few solutions

The situation is not hopeless. Across the country, I have met people who are planting the seeds for a nature-child reunion. I am not suggesting that we bring back the free-range childhood of the 1950s. Those days are over.

But, we can create safe zones for solitary nature exploration. We can weave nature experiences into our classrooms and nature therapy into our health-care system. We can create new programs to introduce the young to the outdoors and expand current ones, such as Portland's Nature University, sponsored by the Metro Regional Parks and Greenspaces Department.

We also can support the green urbanism movement -- more active in Oregon than in most states -- which rejects the traditional distinction between what is urban and what is natural.

We can, in fact, hope that Oregon takes the lead in healing the broken bond between the young and the natural world, just as the state did with urban open spaces.

And we can challenge environmental organizations in the Northwest and across the country to take this issue seriously. If the divide between children and nature continues to widen, who will be the future stewards of the Earth? 2005, adapted from "Last Child in the Woods: Saving Our Children From Nature-Deficit Disorder" by Richard Louv. Reprinted by permission of Algonquin Books of Chapel Hill.


4-H Wildlife Stewards, Sunnyside Environmental School, 3421 SE Salmon 1209,
Portland, OR 97214 - 503-916-6074, e-mail: wildifestewards@oregonstate.edu
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