by Laura Paskus
Chicks are hatching and tulips are poking up shoots across America. But something significant is missing from the springtime landscape: our kids.
Instead of riding bikes, climbing trees and fetching stray balls from the neighbor’s yard, young people are secluded inside with computer games and television.
The result is an epidemic of childhood obesity and the appearance of a new ailment, what children’s advocate and writer Richard Louv calls nature deficit disorder.
As a cash- and time-strapped single mother, I can attest to the difficulty of parenting today, and of getting outside with my child. But in Louv’s book, Last Child in the Woods: Saving Our Children from Nature-Deficit Disorder, he says that by withdrawing ourselves from nature, we are experiencing “diminished use of the senses, attention difficulties, and higher rates of physical and emotional illnesses.”
This is happening for many reasons: Sprawling suburbs can make access to nature difficult. People spend more time indoors enjoying air conditioning, television, video games, computers and other nifty gadgets. And, says Louv, we’ve succumbed to “stranger danger” and also instilled in our children a fear of the natural world – there are bugs and bears and bacteria out there, after all.
Adults who grumble about the habits of today’s youth should consider that the trend toward staying inside began with the generation of people who are today’s parents. Having passed bad habits to our children, we parents must now reverse this trend. Sending kids off to soccer practice is all well and good, but, says Louv, what’s missing from childhood is unstructured playtime – fun time when kids are free to explore outdoors through play and imagination.
Research shows that encouraging children to play outdoors has positive impacts: Young bodies that run and jump outside are healthier than their sedentary counterparts. And recent studies from the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champagne’s Landscape and Human Health Laboratory show that children with attention deficit-hyperactivity disorder who spent time after school and on weekends engaging in “green” activities experienced a “significant reduction of symptoms.”
Fostering the connection between young people and nature is also a way of ensuring the next generation of scientists, farmers, poets, engineers and citizens – people dedicated to things like sustainable agriculture, healthy food systems, alternative energy and the preservation of clean air and water.
Ray Powell, of Roots and Shoots, a program of the Jane Goodall Institute, helps young people create community service projects to benefit the environment, and has seen children’s outdoor passions bloom firsthand. “There is an enormous hunger among young people to feel they can make a positive difference,” he says. “They feel like they don’t have to sit on the sidelines and watch the planet implode.”
Fortunately, there are plenty of ways for parents to help reverse childhood obesity and nature deficit disorder. Trips to the zoo or local nature center are great, as are adventures at the local park, river bank or municipal open space. Or simply take a walk around the neighborhood – collect stones, talk about the trees growing there, make a list of birds you see, and stir appreciation for the natural world in young minds.
Parents can even put technology to work by exploring the websites of the National Park Service (www.nps.gov) and the U.S. Forest Service (www.fs.fed.us). Both sites link to specific activities for children, parents and teachers. The websites for most national parks also contain links to children’s activities unique to that park. For example: children visiting Yellowstone National Park can become “young scientists” and those visiting Florida can learn how to become Junior Rangers at the Everglades.
State parks are another resource. From the Barnegat Lighthouse on the Jersey shore to Tolowa Dunes on the California coast, there are thousands of ways to connect children with nature. Go online or to your local library to find nearby federal, state, county, and municipal parks and trails, and private nature centers.
For me, being outdoors with my young daughter on a weekend camping trip or a stroll to the grocery store helps us connect. My own curiosity about the natural world is piqued by her questions, and I observe many more things than I might as a hurried and harried adult – lizards lounging in the sun, sunflower seedlings sprouting from a crack in a sidewalk, and other joyous sights of spring. Best of all, we have fun together.
At age four, she is steady on all types of trails – whether they cross Utah slickrock or Colorado springtime mud – and she already recognizes birdcalls and plant names. Not only is she healthy and confident: When she is perched atop a boulder or peeking down a prairie dog hole, she inspires in me a surge of hope that we all might follow a better healthier path.
© 2010 www.blueridgepress.com Laura Paskus is a freelance journalist who writes about the environment and social justice issues in the southwestern United States. She lives with her daughter in Albuquerque, New Mexico.
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