When I was a child, I walked home from school through Mr. Farley’s lush green apple orchards. A fresh crisp apple was the perfect tonic after a long day at school. I made mud pies and tried to get my little sister to eat them. I walked through fields of wildflowers, caught polliwogs in the creek, and hiked up mountain trails under the moonlight. I laid on the grass in my back yard with my father, eating peas and raspberries out of our garden. I spent hours hammering a rusty nail through a found piece of wood, trying to build my own tree house. But things have changed in my hometown. The mountain has been blasted several times to make room for more people, the wildflower field is a Super Target and Mr. Farley’s apple orchard is now a parking lot for a church. I thought the trees made a better church, but that’s just me.
Children aren’t walking through apple orchards much anymore. They’re sitting in front of their televisions and computers playing video games when they’re not being shuttled from one activity to another. So we must ask, are tree houses and mud pies things of the past? Have walks through the woods and stargazing been replaced by game boys and x box? It seems our society is heading in that direction, and the consequences for children are dire. Richard Louv discusses this transformation in his book “Last Child in the Woods: Saving Our Children from Nature Deficit Disorder.” He writes that the sedentary “nature deficient” lifestyle brought on by computers and televisions has caused, at best, mind-numbing laziness and obesity; at worst, ADHD and illnesses. The term “nature deficit disorder” is not scientific or clinical. It was coined by Louv because he believes it best describes the current shift in our culture. Children aren’t going outside to play anymore and as a result, have no connection to nature and all the benefits it offers.
According to Louv, there are several different reasons for the cultural shift from outside to inside. There is, of course, the main culprit: televisions and computers. Children choose to stay inside rather then go outside. I worked with an eight-year-old girl who begged her father to let her watch television on a weekday (she was only allowed to watch on Saturday mornings). Her father said no, that she needed to go outside and find something to do. She replied, “But it’s so boring out there!” He responded, “You just made my point.” And this was a very bright child with an unusually long attention span who professed to not even like television! Louv also states that the criminalization of natural play contributes to NDD. Too many people find someone to litigate if their child falls out of a tree. Also, many new neighborhoods are forcing dwellers to sign covenants that restrict the play of children, for example, no skateboarding, no building tree houses, no toys on the lawn, etc. And then there’s the “bogeyman syndrome.” Louv describes this as extreme parental fear of kidnappings and crimes against children, even though they’re not as common as the news would have us believe. Many parents no longer feel safe enough to allow their children outside to explore. Are well-meaning parents contributing to a generation of children who are fat, unimaginative, and at greater risk of physical, mental, and emotional ailments? Louv says yes. And his argument is pretty convincing.
The statistics are sobering. Research shows that American children are suffering as never before in history from inactivity: the child obesity rate has skyrocketed in the last ten years, as has diabetes, and more than 8 million children are suffering from mental disorders, ADHD being one of the most prevalent. In April 2004, Children’s Hospital and Regional Medical Center in Seattle published a study showing that for very hour of television watched per day by preschoolers, their chances of suffering from attention problems were raised by 10%. That is, if a child watches 4 hours of TV a day on average, the probability of an attention disorder is raised by 40%. Children are being medicated for ADHD as never before. Between 2000 and 2003, spending on ADHD for preschoolers increased by 369 percent. But there is hope, and it’s available and free to everyone. Children with ADHD and a host of other mental, physical, and emotional illnesses can greatly benefit from spending time outdoors. The American Journal of Public Health published a study in 2004 that stated children as young as 5 years old showed a significant reduction in ADHD symptoms when they engaged in nature. Nature seems to act as a buffer against life stresses, which can aggravate ADHD. A 2003 Cornell University study found that the more nature a child (with or without ADHD) encountered—even indoor plants and window views of trees—the less they were affected by negative stress.
The good news is that many parents and educators are aware of these issues and are working to remedy it. Emmy Dacosta-Gomez is the Director of the Abeona House, a New Orleans preschool. She says that the two and three year olds at her school “are fearless explorers of the environment.” The Abeona House is in a run-down urban section of New Orleans, but the school has created a nature wonderland for the children, making a “jungle” out of banana leaf trees and creating spaces for them to play in sand, water, dirt, and mud. A study at the University of Illinois found that green outdoor spaces in schools “foster creative play, improve children’s access to positive adult interaction—and relieve symptoms of attention deficit disorders. The greener the setting, the more the relief. By comparison, activities indoors, such as watching TV, or outdoors in paved, non-green areas, increase the symptoms of children with ADHD.” Based on this research, many organizations are working to create natural habitats in urban schools, taking out the concrete and replacing it with grass and trees.
Before administrating preschools, Ms. DaCosta-Gomez taught middle school. She says the children she taught were afraid of nature and had little to no experience with it. She took them on a special nature field trip once a year, and she says it was life changing for the kids. She says “being in nature [for the kids] was like a visit to a haunted house: foreign terrain, unpredictable, and dangerous… everything about our surroundings felt “separate.” Our attempts to instill connectedness with nature included nature hikes, specimen collection in the marsh with rubber hip boots, canoe trips through gator infested waters, star gazing, sketching the landscapes, and alligator “hunting” by night (pontooning through the swamps and looking for their red eyes with flashlights). The kids LOVED these overnight trips, and their growth was evident.” She says that many of her kids wouldn’t even sit on their front porches at home because it was too dangerous. In comparison, they returned from these field trips with more self-confidence, newfound courage, and lasting relationships.
Paul Watson, a founding member of Greenpeace and founder of the Sea Shepherd Conservation Society, has worked as an environmental educator for more than thirty years. He echoes Ms. Dacosta-Gomez’s experience. He says he has found in his experience that if young children are given the opportunity, they are always interested in the environment and will want to play outside. He has found it most difficult to reach teenagers. He says “Yes, get the children out of the clutches of television and the internet and take them into the wilderness. Teach them scuba diving, hiking, camping, climbing, cycling and other recreational outdoor activities. Teach children to respect life and to see the bigger picture so they know where they came from and they have some idea where they are going.”
Innovative ways to get reluctant children out of the house and into nature.
1) Go outside with your child. Take a nature walk with a book about the native flora and fauna in your area. Learn about the local birds, trees, flowers, and wildlife in your area together.
2) Instead of having a high-maintenance grass yard, take the time to design and plant an ecological kid-friendly garden in your yard. Include your children in the planning so they can learn about native plants. Creating a sunflower fort, a butterfly garden, or even hiding places under a large shrub will lure your child away from the television. (There are many books and gardening magazines that address the topic of children’s gardens.)
3) When choosing extra-curricular activities, choose nature-based ones before non-nature ones, like scouts, lantern walks, or feeding the ducks. Most communities, even urban ones, offer nature programs for children.
4) Look into creating an “Adventure Playground” in your community. These types of playgrounds are very popular in Europe and are just gaining notoriety among child advocates in the US. They are designed to allow children to freely express themselves in innovative, creative and interactive ways, as opposed to the “fixed equipment” of most playgrounds. Adventure Playgrounds offer urban children the same type of play as country children: rafting on small ponds, building treehouses, making dams and mud slides, cooking over open fires, digging gardens, building forts, etc. Adventure playgrounds are staffed by “playworkers” who keep the children safe. (While they sound dangerous, Adventure Playgrounds actually have a lower accident rate than conventional playgrounds.)
5) Send your children to a “green” school with a nature-based curriculum. A few years ago, I taught at a nature-based preschool with a “Waldorf-Inspired” curriculum. The parents of the children wanted their children to experience simple imaginative unhurried play in a natural environment. The school was surrounded by woods and rolling pastures. Each day, we took an hour and a half walk in every kind of weather. We walked in rain, deep snow, freezing temperatures, and hot sun. The children experienced first hand the changing seasons—falling leaves, barren trees, vibrant blossoms. We usually visited a fallen tree they called the “dragon,” where they played a multitude of games by riding on the trunk or hiding in the branches. Then we made our way to a ring of trees they called” Gnome Hollow,” where they made fairy houses out of twigs and moss and swung on branches.
6) Unplug or turn off the television and computer, even for a day, and watch what happens. My sister has six children, three of them teenage boys, and she says the best day they had all summer was when she told them to go outside and find something to do that didn’t cost money. They ended up blowing up inner tubes and rafting down the river. She says she’d never seen them play together so happily and peacefully.
7) Bring nature inside. Create an indoor jungle for your kids with indoor plants and trees. Throw away your plastic battery operated toys and replace them with open-ended toys made of natural materials, like playsilks, baskets of feathers, pine cones, and pebbles, wooden dollhouses, canvas tepees, wool puppets, etc. (Great resources for these types of toys are magiccabin.com, and sarahssilks.com.)
8) Create a nature table in a corner of a room. Put a small round table or tree stump and let your children place treasures they have found outside on it—a neat rock or an acorn or a moist dish of moss, a glass jar of wildflowers, leaves, etc.
9) Celebrate the seasons. Visit a local farm. Go apple-picking. Watch the birth of a baby chick. Plant a garden, even a small herb garden in your window if you don’t have room for a big one.
10) Remember there is no bad weather, only bad clothing. Make sure your family has proper outerwear for every kind of weather so you can go outside every day.