Friday, September 7, 2007

From The Shepherdstown Observer

I wrote a column on Children and Nature for the Shepherdstown Observer several months ago. It got a lot of good comments from readers. I was talking to the editor today about doing another piece, and I thought I would post the essay for this blog.

The first time I saw a bear, I was eight years old and camped out in Great Smoky Mountains National Park. It was a moonless summer night and I beamed a flashlight across the campground road to see a big bear with his head all the way down into a bear- proof garbage can. I was fascinated and terrified at the same time.

That moment, more than 35 years in the past, remains vivid in my memory even today and it was only the start of many outdoor adventures both in my backyard woods and in wilderness places from Maine to the Arctic. Being outside has always been an important part of life.

But those formative years took place before the advent of computers, 24-hour news stations, and the Xbox. Today when most kids go outside they tend to be involved with organized sports. Gone for many are the days of riding your bike to town, catching frogs in the swamp, or waiting for the bus without parental supervision. These changes in our culture are beginning to have significant impact not only on how kids feel about the outdoors, but the state of children's health.

The media is filled with stories currently that focus on the decline of children's health. Childhood obesity, diabetes and attention deficit disorders seem to be increasing, due, at least in some part to the very different world our children are experiencing today. Gone are the days of going outside to play. Instead, the information age has provided our kids with an endless array of video games, HD televisions, and cell phone ring tones. One middle school student was recently quoted as saying he likes playing indoors because that's where the electrical outlets are.

“And why not play indoors?” say many parents. They are the ones that are bombarded daily with five channels of news, each trying to outdo each other presenting the latest shocking crime. “It's dangerous out there”, some say, “and our children are at risk from strangers like never before.” At least that's the impression you get from the daily news. Play outside unsupervised? Not likely these days. When kids are allowed outdoors, they are shuttled from home to the soccer field or dance studio, where structured activities and competition fill the hours.

What does all this mean? The bottom line is more children today are disconnected from nature than ever before. This disconnect is having negative impacts on their health and their feelings about the outdoors. If this trend continues, in 20 years we could live in a society where the life expectancy is less than today and the general population has no support for things like wildlife and national parks.

Remarking on this issue, the writer Robert Michael Pyle said, “What is the extinction of the condor to a child who has never known a wren?”

But there is hope. Richard Louv, a journalist from San Diego, published a book that has become the call to arms for this problem. Much like Rachel Carson's Silent Spring published more than four decades ago, Last Child in the Woods, Saving our Children From Nature Deficit Disorder has sparked a new movement among a cross section of the American public. Educators, conservationists, health care workers and business people all are working together to find solutions, and ensure that our children do not lose touch with nature.

In September, a conference was held at the National Conservation Training Center that brought a diverse group of people interested in this topic together for the first time. Participants from around the country discussed why getting outside can be beneficial to the health of our children and also the future of our natural places.

The outcome of that gathering includes a number of local and national initiatives, including The National Forum on Children and Nature, a project being planned by The Conservation Fund. Connecticut’s “No Child Left Inside” program, also profiled at the conference, has already been a big success. The NCTC is also working on a number of projects, thanks to this being a high priority for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.

There are a number of things that we can do today, in our own communities to keep our children connected with nature. First, read Louv’s book, which gives a great overview of the problem. Louv focuses on the health benefits of playing outside and remarks that it would be better for a doctor to prescribe outdoor play rather than drugs like Ritalin.

Second, get outside! The lessons learned from Connecticut’s program are important—by simply spending time outdoors with our kids, they will be more interested in nature and will want to spend more time away from the X-box. Take a bike ride on the C&O canal, or float the Potomac or Shenandoah. Watch the NCTC website for future events like speaker series, our annual open house, and other educational programs to help kids connect with nature.

Finally, get out for a weekend and go camping. There are many opportunities in our local area to spend the night out, and again, the benefits are huge, for you and your kids. And if your kids say, “we don’t want to go camping, there are bears out there”, to that statement, I reply, “that’s why we’re going.”