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Bicycles and Hiking Poles are Technology, Too!

If you haven’t heard of “nature-deficit disorder,” a term coined by author Richard Louv in his book Last Child in the Woods, it’s really something you may want to look into – especially if (like me) you’re an educator and/or a parent with a keen interest in gadgets and technology.  It’s all too easy to become complacent with the way things are in our over-scheduled, technology-focused society and to forget about what is certainly the best learning environment available: the natural world.


Child lying in grassI want to share some findings about what is “on the rise” and “on the decline” in the Western world today.

On the rise: obesity, ADD and ADHD, depression, stress, time spent watching television, use of computers and video games, traffic, homework, fear of strangers, time spent in cars, time engaged in structured/scheduled activity, playing at home with adult supervision, risk (in children) of cardiovascular disease, high blood pressure in children, and parent concerns about safety.

On the decline: social skills, time spent in nature, access to natural areas, time spent in active and unstructured play, bicycle riding, time spent playing outdoors, knowledge (by kids) of natural species, range of places in which kids play, number of playmates, diversity of playmates, the percentage of children who walk or bike to school, the mobility and freedom of children.

What happened to change all these things since today’s adults were kids?  I know that I had three special outdoors places when I was growing up, and this was in the New York metropolitan area, just eight miles west of downtown Manhattan in Northern New Jersey.  One was a vacant lot at the back of a dead end directly across the street from my house.  The second was the interior wooded hill on my block, accessed only via a friend’s back yard; that friend lived around the corner from me, and I would frequently go visit and ask if we could play “on the hill.”  The third was across town in a county park: it was a wooded hillside that stretched the length of the park and had a bit of a trail through it.  I craved my time spent in these places, and I never spent any of my time in the first two in the company of adults.  I also know that my son, about to turn six, isn’t even allowed to walk to the end of our block and cross a quiet residential street to our little pocket park.  And that little park is so much greener and tree-filled than my vacant lot – which is now paved over for parking, by the way – a short walk from the front door of my childhood home.  Even if my husband and I let him out on such a venture to the corner without us, a concerned neighbor would likely come find us or even call the police to report a lost child wandering the neighborhood.

My son is lucky in one sense: his father teaches sports outdoors and I frequently take our boy to the ocean, on hikes in wooded parks, and on geocaching adventures in the many parks and walkways in our area.  So we’re not shut-ins.  But in another sense, he’s being robbed of what so many of us got to experience in our own childhoods: freedom in the outdoors to explore, observe, and recharge.  There has been much research in this area, but much more is needed and is certain to be on the horizon.  But ask yourself this: when is the last time you, your child(ren), or your students actually sat and SAW the horizon.  Not from the car window as you commuted home from work, and not a quick glimpse as you ran errands or walked up your driveway.  Sat down.  For a while.  You.  Horizon.  Peace.

I can’t remember either, so don’t think I am judging you.  We just don’t go outside enough anymore.  And we’re certainly not letting, encouraging, or even forcing our kids to go outside enough either.  Let’s change that.  But first, some data.

One reason parents give for limiting their children’s time spent outdoors is a fear of abduction or other crimes against kids.  The news media has a lot to answer for in amplifying this fear, as does the Internet.  The fact is that the United States has experienced around the same number of stranger abductions per year (about 100) for two decades.  And the rates of violent crimes against young people have actually declined significantly since 1975.  One study done by a researcher at Hofstra University found 800 mothers reporting that crime and safety concerns prevented 82 percent of them from allowing their kids to play outdoors.  But 85 percent of those same mothers cited television and computer games as the number one reason.  The Kaiser Family Foundation, in studies conducted in 2005 and 2006, discovered that young people between the ages of 8 and 18 spend an average of 6.5 hours each day with some form of electronic media, totaling more than 45 hours per week.  That’s more than the “standard” 40-hour work week.  Few of us adults really work only 40 hours each week.  Maybe that’s why our children turn to electronic babysitters so often.

We’re not likely to pretend we’re not afraid of all the dangers lurking “out there,” so perhaps we need to commit to getting out there with our kids to make sure they get what they need.  It’ll be good for you, too!  Need convincing?

Child sitting in grassYou know what else is “on the rise”?  In the United Kingdom, a leading mental health charity has discovered that treatment of adult depression has been increasingly successful through the use of ecotherapy, a method of “green treatment” that includes gardening and woodland walks.  Similarly, the Dutch have found that people with ready access to nature have better overall health.  And even in America’s inner cities, such as the housing projects of Chicago, the presence of trees among the housing increases coping skills and other positive emotional and mental health factors.

Meanwhile, a major decline has been witnessed in the symptoms of kids with ADD after time spent in outdoor recreation.  Think about it.  Getting outdoors, seeing trees, smelling grass, all these kinds of pastimes.  Just remembering your own experiences brings a calming effect.  When we get out there and play in natural settings, we think more clearly, learn more effectively, and feel better in our physical bodies.

And ask any environmentalist where his or her love and concern for the Earth came from.  It wasn’t in a classroom or a stuffy library, sitting at a table or behind a desk.  It was lying in a meadow, or building a tree fort, or feeling waves caress sandy toes.  If we keep ignoring our environment and limiting kids’ exposure to nature, how will a new generation of activists emerge?

I’ve selected some references to research from a summary (The Importance of Children in Nature: Why Children Need Nature and Nature Needs Children) produced by the Children & Nature Network, an organization of which Richard Louv is the chairman.  Louv’s book, mentioned earlier, gives a fuller explanation of all the research and theories out there connecting nature and children’s health and well-being.  But when you just think about it, doesn’t it make sense?  It doesn’t take a book (which I still recommend you read) to make the connection between our lack of nature and our dearth of physical and social ills.  And it doesn’t take being an environmental activist or a published author to see that when we re-introduce nature back into the equation of our busy lives, stress goes down, health goes up, and children clearly benefit.

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Image of child lying in grass is from Flickr user Pink Sherbert, some rights reserved, Creative Commons.
Image of child sitting in grass is from Flickr user Michel Filion, some rights reserved, Creative Commons.

 

Diane Main is a Google Certified teacher who teaches technology integration in San Jose, California. Visit her blog at FreeTeacherTools.com

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