Children In Nature
Save Your Kid, Save the Planet
Embrace Nature Now — and Slow Down
Growing up in rural Connecticut, I spent almost every free moment outside. We lived at the end of a dirt road that led to a marshy, spring-fed pond, where my brother and I caught frogs and turtles in the summer, ice skated in the winter and witnessed the migrations of geese and ducks each spring and fall. I spent hours, alone, constructing tiny villages out of twigs at the base of the oak trees in our front yard and many more hours, with friends, playing Army, Cops and Robbers and Swiss Family Robinson in the forest behind our house.
As a teenager, I hiked through the wildlife refuge that started just a quarter-mile from our home — and on those hikes I learned the thrill that can come from watching a sunset over a New England ridge, spotting a Great Horned Owl in a branch, spying on beavers building a dam or bushwhacking around a pond.
Such is not the life of most American children these days. Hemmed in by homework and sports schedules, few children have the time to head off into the woods for an evening jaunt or a game of tag — if there even are woods nearby. And burdened with worries about molesters and abductors, few parents are willing to let their kids escape to a local playground on their own. This is an unprecedented shift in human childhood.
“For eons, children have spent most of their formative years in nature,” Richard Louv explains in his seminal book, Last Child in the Woods, published in 2005. “But within the space of a few decades, the way children understand and experience nature has changed radically.”
The consequences — for both individuals and our planet — could be dire, some observers fear. “We’re seeing behavioral and health problems in children who aren’t outside enough,” says Wendy Wheeler, co-founder of Children in Nature Bay Area. “But there are even bigger issues, too. Our environment is going to hell in a hand basket. If children aren’t learning about nature, they may not care enough to be environmental stewards.”
Why Nature Matters
A hundred years ago, John Muir wrote that “Thousands of tired, nerve-shaken, over-civilized people are beginning to find out that going to the mountains is going home; that wilderness is a necessity; and that mountain parks and reservations are useful not only as fountains of timber and irrigating rivers, but as fountains of life.”
Today, numerous studies are documenting some very real benefits to being in nature — including improving mood, enhancing concentration, boosting creativity, inspiring a love of nature, promoting social bonds, strengthening memory, reducing stress, quickening recovery time from illness, and providing solace.
Less easy to quantify — but no less important — many believe that having time to roam freely in nature allows children to wander, invent, explore, create, reflect, dream and observe and gives them “time and space to hear inner voices,” Louv writes. In fact, environmental psychologist Louise Chawla, a professor in the College of Architecture and Planning at University of Colorado and co-editor of Children, Youth and Environments, has found that adults don’t report having transcendent experiences in childhood unless they spent time
in nature as children.
“The lack of unstructured play, of free time, is depriving children of the chance to discover, wonder and construct narratives over time,” says Julie Nicholson, who leads the Center for Play Research at Mills College and co-founded the Bay Area Coalition for Play. “Children aren’t able to develop deep concepts, rich social skills and problem-solving techniques. Twenty minutes of park time is not the same as the sustained open play that we used to have, and now even business people are realizing this has a big effect on peoples’ abilities to work in teams, think outside the box, come up with creative solutions.”
Barriers to Nature
Unfortunately, fewer and fewer children are reaping these benefits these days because of a number of hurdles:
Time. Between homework, organized sports and other “enrichment” activities, most children’s afternoons and weekends are every bit as scheduled as an adult’s. That means that time for wandering through a meadow, building a fort in the woods or following a brook to its source is in very short supply.
Fear. In many communities (even middle class suburbs) it’s no longer considered wise to let children roam about the local neighborhood — either alone or with a group — because of concerns about abduction, molestation and traffic accidents.
Access: Few urban areas have parks with running water, trees that kids are allowed to climb or places to build forts. Many suburban areas have rules about what kids are allowed to do (and not do), including where they can ride bikes, build forts and play ball.
Technology. In the absence of being able to spend time outside, more and more children are succumbing to the potentially addictive lure of “screen time” — provided by TV shows, DVDs, video games, computers, smart phones and tablets. Many children, in fact, end up watching nature more via digitized media than direct experience. Sadly, the most recent estimates by the Kaiser Family Foundation put average weekly screen time for kids aged 8 to 18 at 53 hours a week. Only 6 percent of children aged 9 to 13 play outside alone in a typical week; the average amount of time that children spend in unstructured time in nature is about 30 minutes per week.
Science curricula. An emphasis on textbooks and testing in K–12 education — and an emphasis on theory over application in higher education — has led to a generation of students who aren’t as engaged in environmental science and natural history as they could be.
Nature Deficit Disorder
In the course of writing his book, Louv coined the term “nature deficit disorder” to describe what he sees as multiple maladies stemming from the lack of both free time and exposure to the outdoors. The disorder isn’t listed in any standard medical references (such as the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders) but the symptoms of it, in Louv’s mind, include depression, obesity, behavioral problems, academic issues, lack of creativity, stress and a diminished sense of wonder and awe. Some researchers even believe that attention deficit hyperactivity disorder, or ADHD, may be because of the fact that children — and especially boys — no longer have constructive outlets for their physical energy, such as working on farms or being able to play in the woods.
Getting Children Outside
Healing this broken bond between children and nature, Louv and other nature advocates say, is crucial for our mental, physical, spiritual and environmental health. But how to do that? They see a number of pathways, including:
Encouraging families to get out into nature more. By providing safe places for families to roam — as well as, in some cases, adult guides to show them how to do it — children will not only grow to appreciate nature but spend quality time with their families.
Changing urban planning Sustainable, healthy communities need to incorporate not just green spaces (like parks) but “islands” of wild places, too, where children (and adults) can have adventures.
New laws. In Last Child in the Woods, Louv calls for a nationwide review of the laws that govern private land and recreation, “with the goal of protecting both the child’s safety and the child’s right to play in natural settings.” Fragile ecosystems could still be protected — but children could still have streams to wade in, dunes to tumble on and trees to climb.
Renovating schoolyards. Schoolyards should be spruced up to provide more green spaces and gardens that children can see and play and work in.
It’s not an impossible goal. Nationwide dozens of programs aimed at getting children out into nature — from Tots on the Tundra in Kotzebue, Alaska, to Sandy Feet in Naples, Fla., — now exist. Some are just loose groups of parents; some are sponsored by state governments; others are funded by nonprofits, including the National Wildlife Federation
and the Sierra Club. The Children & Nature Network, which was co-founded by Louv and aims to link and provide resources for researchers, individuals, educators and organizations working to get children outdoors more was founded in 2006. Today, the website (www.childrenandnature.org) provides a wealth of resources on the subject, including contact information for dozens of clubs and campaigns around the country; kits for starting “Family Nature Clubs” that support parents in getting outside more; information on the Natural Leaders Legacy Initiative that aims to train, activate and support kids with leadership potential; and tips on planning “Let’s G.O.!” (for Get Outside) events, including hikes, service days and celebrations.
The efforts seem to be working. According to a report released in May of this year by C&NN, the number of children “connecting to the outdoors” has increased three fold since 2009 (from 1 million to 3 million). The organization now boasts 107 regional campaigns and129 Nature Clubs for families; between January and May 2012, more than 600 Let’s G.O.! events took place — more than took place in all of 2011.
Moreover, notes Nicholson, the crisis around play itself has reached a “tipping point.” Communities are “starting to wake up,” she says. “Researchers have known for a long time that this constant pressure to achieve is not good for children. Now society is
The Local Movement
Here in the Bay Area, the Children in Nature Collaborative (www.cincbayarea.org) formed in 2007 in the wake of the first-ever conference in the area on the topic of getting children outside. That conference drew 800 people; the resulting collaborative aims to educate people about the restorative benefits of nature on children; promote more unstructured time; and the need to provide more access to nature for children and families.
“We knew a national movement was starting because Richard Louv had just published Last Child in
Nature,” says Mary Roscoe, who helped found CINC. “It was an exciting time, because environmentalists and teachers felt validated for their work and beliefs. They felt that spark a sense of urgency. It seemed really important to accelerate the work being done across the country.”
Partners in the collaborative today include Bay Area Wilderness Training, Coastal Habitat Education and Environmental Restoration, the Environmental Studies Institute of Santa Clara University, Full Circle Farm, REI, Youth Science Institute and the Waldorf School of the Penninsula — and their urgency has not diminished over the last five years. “It is still building,” Roscoe says. “It’s a little like climate change. The health problems, the behavioral problems, are all tips of the iceberg, and the situation is going to get worse. We need to change how we think about ourselves and who and how we are in the world.”
In 2012, a small band of parents also formed a Children in Nature Bay Area club to promote more connections between nature and children. “At this point, we are providing recommendations for outdoor play and trying to set up a nature circle or monthly hiking group,” Wheeler says. “Long term, we want to provide a monthly activity on the same day each month. It would be something at which parents could either drop off their kids (with another parent) or stay for the outdoor fun.” One of the group’s biggest projects is the Children in Nature Bay Area wiki page (http://childreninnaturebayarea.wikia.com/wiki/Children_in_Nature_Bay_Area_Wiki), which aims to provide a “map” of all the Bay Area organizations that provide children with
opportunities to be in nature. As with all wiki pages (which are websites that users can add to or modify), this one will grow and change, but it currently includes special events, activity ideas, summer camps, funding sources, teacher training opportunities, on-going outdoor programs for kids, and dozens of listings of books and articles from academic journals and
the mainstream press on the topic of children, nature and play. “Until we started the wiki page, a consolidated list of all the organizations providing nature activities for kids was not available,” Wheeler says.
Nature in a Crack
Of course, not all children are able to get out to Yosemite, the Appalachian Trail or even the East Bay Regional Park District. That doesn’t mean they can’t reap the benefits of time spent outside, however. “Initially in the movement, we talked about getting children in the woods,” Roscoe explains. “We thought that getting kids outside, into the wilderness, was most important. We still think that’s important, but exposing them to the nearest nature is also important. We want to help them connect with nature where they live.
“Nature can be very small,” she adds. “It can be a crack in the sidewalk, a simple weed. It doesn’t have to be a huge expanse.”
Working with communities to renovate their own parks and playgrounds is also key to establishing better connections with the environment, advocates say. One notable example: More than 3,400 children live in the neighborhood of Elm Playlot, which lies in the heart of Richmond’s notorious Iron Triangle. Yet few children played there, because it had become a popular hangout for drug dealers, gang members and dog fighters. A local community group, “Pogo Park,” is currently planning a neighborhood park that will attract children for the site. Plans include having a “park host” to monitor the park and organize activities for
the children, having healthy snacks and using the park as a hub for helping families connect to other services in the community — including a book mobile, mobile health vans and a farmers market.
A nascent movement to create what Menlo Park entrepreneur Michael Lanza calls “playborhoods” may also be key to getting children outside more. In his book by the same name (published in April of this year), Lanza describes how communities across the country are creating safe places for children to play and explore in their own neighborhoods — including practical tips on how to transform our own neighborhoods.
The efforts may seem disparate, but advocates say the movement is gaining momentum, in part because it resonates so deeply with today’s parents, many of whom, like me, grew up as “free-range” children in neighborhoods filled with trees, brooks and adventures. “The urgency right now for me personally is the fact that when my children were small, the back door was constantly flapping with the kids going in and out of our house here in Mountain View and playing our yard,” Roscoe says. “Now if I look outside up or down my street, there aren’t any children on the street at all.”
The Slow Family Movement
A number of parents who are working to find more time for their children in nature are also becoming advocates of the Slow Family Movement. Just as the Slow Food Movement promotes a return to cooking from scratch, the Slow Family Movement advocates for creating less structured, less stressful, less scheduled and less splintered family lives. With a goal toward helping families feel more connected to each other — and finding more joy in their daily lives — the Slow
Family Movement, also called
Slow Family Living, emphasizes imagining what you want your family life to look and feel like 10 or 20 years from now.
Now a national movement, Slow Family Living was founded by Bernadette Noll and Carry Contey, PhD, both mothers in Austin, Texas, who realized, during a workshop on creating family mission statements, that their family lives were highly pressured by the “social pressure to do, do, do,” Noll says, “to sign up for sports, extra-curricular, tutoring and more with the fear that if you didn’t do this, your kid was going to somehow be left behind —
academically, socially, physically.”
The two set out with a simple goal: “to inspire families to slow down, connect with each other and actually enjoy family life. We want them to slow down long enough to tune into their own desires for their family. To do things because it’s what they want to do not because society fills them with fear. We also want to encourage families to see that the connection they want with their kids 10, 20, 30 years from now can be built now. At home. While the kids are young and while everyone’s under the same roof. And that family life should be joyful, not some arduous process that one is simply meant to endure.
Connected family life doesn’t just happen, she adds. “It is consciously created at home. It can be as simple as making more eye contact when you’re together, or as grand as spending a weekend together on a road trip as a family.”
While a lot of Slow Family advocates have one parent at home or are even homeschooling, Noll insists that even working families can slow down. It’s about making connection in the time you do have. It’s about slowing down long enough to ask yourself, “Is what we’re doing working for us?” “Is it giving us the connection we want?”
Noll recommends more eye contact, more touching and scheduling in “spaciousness” (or downtime) so families can “take the time to enjoy each other.”
“Put family time on the calendar,” she says. “Ponder invitations to events and parties. Will it serve our family? And see how much you have to learn from being together. The things will come and go, but the people are there for your lifetime together. Slow is in the pausing long enough to figure out what you want. Connect is in the everyday — make it a point with eyes, hands, hearts. And joy is in being together and making it all fun.”
50 Things to Do Before You’re 11¾
(From UK’s National Trust)
1. Climb a tree
2. Roll down a really big hill
3. Camp out in the wild
4. Build a den
5. Skim a stone
6. Run around in the rain
7. Fly a kite
8. Catch a fish with a net
9. Eat an apple straight from a tree
10. Play conkers
11. Throw some snow
12. Hunt for treasure on the beach
13. Make a mud pie
14. Dam a stream
15. Go sledding
16. Bury someone in the sand
17. Set up a snail race
18. Balance on a fallen tree
19. Swing on a rope swing
20. Make a mud slide
21. Eat blackberries growing in the wild
22. Take a look inside a tree
23. Visit an island
24. Feel like you’re flying in the wind
25. Make a grass trumpet
26. Hunt for fossils and bones
27. Watch the sun wake up
28. Climb a huge hill
29. Get behind a waterfall
30. Feed a bird from your hand
31. Hunt for bugs
32. Find some frogspawn
33. Catch a butterfly in a net
34. Track wild animals
35. Discover what’s in a pond
36. Call an owl
37. Check out the crazy creatures in a rock pool
38. Bring up a butterfly
39. Catch a crab
40. Go on a nature walk at night
41. Plant it, grow it, eat it
42. Go wild swimming
43. Go rafting
44. Light a fire without matches
45. Find your way with a map and compass
46. Try bouldering
47. Cook on a campfire
48. Try abseiling
49. Find a geocache
50. Canoe down a river