Ah summertime, lazy days spent skipping stones, building forts, laying in the grass, and catching lighting bugs, right? Wrong.
Between cartoons, video games, social networking, text messaging, and a full day of play dates, practice, and other structured activities today’s children don’t have nearly as much time for simply playing outdoors. The result: a “denatured” generation and parents desperate for ways to unplug the iPod and X-box.
In response, a national movement is building as a growing number of groups and organizations heed the call of author Richard Louv’s groundbreaking book “Last Child in the Woods” by offering programs, tips, and activities to get kids away from the TV and out into the natural world.
Here in New Jersey, the Stony Brook-Millstone Watershed Association — central New Jersey’s first environmental organization — is doing its own part to get kids outside. For more than 30 years its Summer Nature & Environmental Day Camp at the 860-acre Watershed Reserve in Pennington has given pre-schoolers through high-schoolers the chance to explore and experience nature firsthand.
And now two new programs — No Child Left Inside and A Natural Sense of Wonder — give parents the tools to make a difference.
Never have kids been more disconnected from their local environment. According to the National Wildlife Federation’s recent report, “Connecting Today’s Kids With Nature,” we are now seeing the “first American generation to grow up effectively isolated from nature.”
Decline in outdoor activity has been well documented by experts such as Sandra Hofferth, a family studies professor at the University of Maryland, who found from 1997 to 2003 a decline from 16 percent to 8 percent in the proportion of children ages 9 to 12 who spent time in outside activities.
Such outdoor recreation and exploration has been replaced by time spent indoors in front of electronic screens. Research by groups like the American Academy and Pediatrics and the Kaiser Family Foundation find that the average child in the U.S. spends more than four hours in front of a TV, computer, and/or video game screen when time using technology at daycare, school, and home is taken into consideration.
More screen time means cartoon characters become more familiar and recognizable than insects, plants, and animals. In a British study, researchers found the average eight-year-old was better able to identify characters from the Japanese cartoon Pokemon than their own native species.
In addition, fears associated with safety and security has reduced the area children are allowed to roam on their own to just one ninth the area kids did in 1970.
Why is this a problem? In 2005, author Richard Louv’s book “Last Child in the Woods” was one of the first to bring together cutting-edge research to shine a light on the serious impact a lack of natural interaction can have on our children. “Within the space of a few decades, the way children understand and experience nature has changed radically,” Louv writes. “Today, kids are aware of the global threats to the environment — but their physical contact, their intimacy with nature, is fading. A kid today can likely tell you about the Amazon rain forest — but not about the last time he or she explored the woods in solitude, or lay in a field listening to the wind and watching the clouds move.”
Nature-deficit disorder, not a medical condition but a “description of the human costs of alienation from nature” as Louv puts it, has significant consequences including direct links to trends of rising childhood obesity, attention deficit disorder (ADD), and depression, not to mention thwarting the development of the next generation of environmental stewards.
Free outdoor play is critical to children’s development. In 2006 the American Academy of Pediatrics published a report emphasizing this very fact. Through free play children develop confidence in themselves and their decision-making abilities, develop conflict resolution and other social skills, and develop and use their imagination. Hand in hand with the decline of free play is a marked reduction in time spent outdoors, and even more so, time spent in the natural world.
Throughout the history of humankind children have learned and grown outside. Nature is a vital source of information and experiences that help a child learn how he or she relates to the world, develop a sense of confidence and competence, and flex their cognitive muscles.
Exploration in nature can be a potent therapy for depression, anxiety, and ADD; environment-based education dramatically improves standardized test scores and grade point averages; and assists in problem solving, critical thinking, and decision-making skill development. Even creativity is stimulated.
Organizations like the Stony Brook-Millstone Watershed Association — which protects the 265-square-mile area drained by the Stony Brook and Millstone River and serves more than 10,000 children and adults each year through nearly 400 education programs — are giving parents the tools they need to get their kids to put down the iPod and pick up a salamander. The association’s two new two-part programs are designed specifically to empower parents to turn off the TV, computer, and video games. Both programs are free.
No Child Left Inside includes a weekday evening presentation on Thursday, June 12, for parents on how important natural experience is for our youth and family exploration in a neighborhood park two days later, on Saturday, June 14. No Child Left Inside repeats on July 10 and 12 (locations to be determined), and on July 31 and August 2 in Hopewell.
In No Child Left Inside, two educators with more than 30 years experience using the outdoors as a classroom — myself and independent environmental educator Roberta Hunter — illuminate the value and importance of nature exploration in our children’s lives.
The weekday evening segment of the program includes a presentation reviewing findings in books like “Last Child in the Woods” by Louv, and “The Geography of Childhood: Why Children Need Wild Places” by Gary Paul Nabhan and Stephen Trimble, as well as entertaining anecdotes of encounters in nature, and a discussion about how we all can facilitate opportunities for free play and natural connection. Open discussion is invited. Refreshments are provided.
The outdoor session is designed to encourage a lasting relationship with nature while illuminating a wealth of possible explorations and activities in stream, field, and forest. Participants are encouraged to bring a snack and wear clothes suitable for outdoor exploration. It is appropriate for kids age 2 and up.
The second program, A Natural Sense of Wonder, features the expertise of author Rick Van Noy on Thursday, June 26, at the Buttinger Nature Center on the Watershed Reserve, with family play at the Reserve two days later, on Saturday, June 28. A presentation and discussion will center on Van Noy’s new book, “A Natural Sense of Wonder: Connecting Kids with Nature through the Seasons” — his answer to the call to action raised by Louv’s “Last Child in the Woods.”
Jeff Hoagland has directed the education program at the Stony Brook-Millstone Watershed Association since 1984. He founded the Buttinger Nature Center in 1989 and continues to provide the vision and direction for the education program. He also provides workshops for classroom teachers interested in incorporating the environment into their classroom.
No Child Left Inside, Thursday, June 12, 7 p.m. Princeton Public Library, 65 Witherspoon Street. Two educators from the Stony Brook-Watershed Association discuss the importance of nature exploration in children’s lives. An outdoor exploration session for families takes place on Saturday, June 14, at Johnson Park School in Princeton. Program will be repeated on July 10 and 12 (locations to be determined) and on July 31 and August 2 in Hopewell. 609-737-7592.
Also, A Natural Sense of Wonder, Thursday, June 26, 7:30 p.m. Stony Brook Millstone Watershed, Buttinger Nature Center on the Watershed Preserve, 31 Titus Mill Road, Pennington. Author Rick Van Noy discusses his new book “A Natural Sense of Wonder: Connecting Kids with Nature Through the Seasons.” A family event takes place at the Reserve two days later on Saturday, June 28, at 9 a.m.