In 2008, The National Audubon Society presented its Audubon Medal to writer and child advocate Richard Louv for encouraging more contact between children and the natural environment (http://www.audubon.org/nas/medal/). Louv has won attention around the world for his book, Last Child in the Woods, first published in 2005 and expanded in a 2008 edition. In it, Louv writes about the decreasing amount of experience in nature in the lives of American youth. The consequence of this situation, he argues, is the declining health of our population as well as other growing societal ills. He identifies the problem as “Nature-Deficit Disorder.”

Some of the data Louv cites supporting his argument comes from the University of Texas at Austin. According to the Center for Research on the Influences of Television on Children (CRTIC), children in America spend more time watching television than in any other waking activity, with additional time devoted to video and computer games and to using the Internet (http://www.he.utexas.edu/web/CRITC/index.html). The fact is that the average home in the United States has more TVs than children, and kids in our country watch more TV than children any place else in the world.

Videophilia Replacing Biophilia

In a recent article in Kappan, Clare Lowell (2008) writes of “videophilia” as the tendency “to focus on sedentary activities involving electronic media” and says this new love object of our kids has “virtually supplanted the need for ‘biophilia,’ or the urge to affiliate with other forms of life” (p. 219). She cites researchers Hofferth and Sandberg (2001), who found that “the proportion of 9-12 year olds who engage in outside activities such as hiking, walking, fishing, beach play, and gardening has declined by 50 percent ...(and) children’s free play time in a typical week has declined by a total of nine hours over a 25-year period” (p. 220). Hofferth and Sandberg state:

“After a full day at a school desk, the American child comes home to spend, on average, three or more sedentary hours in front of some kind of screen. What’s worse, school budgets have slashed physical education programs in cost-cutting moves that have resulted in plummeting participation in daily physical education – down to 25% from 42% 17 years ago” (p. 220).

This situation is deplorable, and for parents, the health consequences alone should raise an alarm. Researchers who have studied the relationship between children’s ability to focus and their exposure to nature through leisure activities found that children’s attentional functioning improves after play in green settings. In one study it was found that the greener an activity area, the better the children functioned, with attention deficit symptoms becoming less severe (Faber Taylor, Kuo, & Sullivan, 2001).

No Child Left Inside Act

One of the positive outcomes of the wake-up call we owe to Richard Louv is the No Child Left Inside Act (NCLI) that passed the House of Representatives on Sep 18, 2008. The Senate did not consider the act and thus it has not been enacted into law. If the act is brought back in 2009, it could provide funding for schools and non-formal environmental education centers as well as authorize the creation of state environmental literacy plans. NCLI would increase our children’s opportunities to discover their personal connections to the natural world. This act should become law for the simple reason that today’s youngsters are tomorrow’s leaders. We should not want to have people as our leaders who are alienated from wild environments or ignorant of the value of nature’s ecosystem services.

Taking Care of the Environment and our Kids

We all need to reassess how we live our lives in light of what scientists are telling us about resource depletion, environmental pollution, land degradation, accelerating species extinctions, and global climate change. Part of a rational response to the current environmental crisis is to better educate our children as to the reality of their connection to and dependency upon nature. We want those who take over next to be grounded in reality, not in TV-video game fantasy. As Hofferth and Sandberg (2001) point out, “Conservation will fail unless it is better connected to people, and people start out as children who need to revere their connection to nature from a personal rather than intellectual, viewpoint” (p. 222).

Tips From Parent to Parent

Our family lives in the small city of Salem, Virginia at the south end of the Great Valley between the Blue Ridge Mountains and the Appalachians. It is a beautiful area with easy access to the Jefferson National Forest, the Appalachian Trail, and nearby state parks and national monuments. The James and New Rivers are close enough for day trips paddling on white water. As parents we were able to spend time regularly hiking, biking and paddling with our three children and we have been able to afford to send them each year to a wonderful church camp farther up the valley at Orkney Springs, Virginia. On the flip side, we have always set limits on our kids’ screen time, and it is particularly restricted on school nights. Because we are consistent, we hear few complaints. From what I can tell, biophilia has indeed taken root in all three of them.

Even though we are surrounded by nature, our area is struggling with Nature Deficit Disorder. To combat budget woes, local churches are cutting summer camp programs and school districts are cutting field trips. Financing community programs is therefore difficult, but not impossible. Our local paper recently reported on a new organization, Kids in the Valley Adventuring (KIVA), which provides opportunities for kids in our area to get outdoors and explore. According to the article, the family that started KIVA received a $1,000 award from Disney and Family Fun Magazine. More than 100 families currently participate in the group’s hikes and other nature activities.

I hope you will take steps to ensure that the children in your family have an appropriate balance of screen time and leisure play outdoors in green settings. Perhaps the best gift in the world that you can give your children is your time helping them explore the workings and beauty of the natural world.

As you step out in nature, remember the sage advice of Stephen Jay Gould, one of the most influential and inspiring scientists of the 20th century: “We cannot win this battle to save species and environments without forging an emotional bond between ourselves and nature, for we will not fight to save what we do not love . . . So let them all continue ­ the films, the books, the television programs, the zoos, the little half acre of ecological preserve in any community, the primary school lessons, the museum demonstrations, even . . .  the 6:00 A.M. bird walks. Let them continue and expand because we must have visceral contact in order to love. We really must make room for nature in our hearts” (p. 4).

References

Faber Taylor, A., Kuo, F.E., & Sullivan, W.C. (2001). Coping with ADD: The surprising connection to green play settings. Environment and Behavior, 33(1), 54-77.

Gould, S.J. (1994). Eight little piggies: Reflections in natural history.
New York: W.W. Norton and Company.

Hofferth, S.L. & Sandberg, J.F. (2001, May). How children spend their time. Journal of Marriage and Family, 473-279.

Louv, R. (2008). Last Child in the Woods: Saving Our Children from Nature-Deficit Disorder, Updated and Expanded edition. Chapel Hill, NC: Algonquin Books of Chapel Hill.

Lowell, C. (2008). Beyond The Lorax? The greening of the American curriculum. Phi Delta Kappan, 90(3), 218-222.

Recommended Reading

Diamond, J. (2006). Collapse: How societies choose to fail or succeed. New York: Viking.

Ehrlich, P.R. & Ehrlich, A.H. (2008). The dominant animal: Human evolution and the environment. Washington, DC: Island Press.

Hawken, P. (2007). Blessed unrest: How the largest movement in the world came into being and why no one saw it coming. New York: Viking.

Lin, J. (2006). Love, peace, and wisdom in education: A vision for education in the 21st century. Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield.

McKibben, B. (2007). Deep economy: The wealth of communities and the durable future. New York: Times Books.

Novacek, M. (2007). Terra: Our 100-million-year-old ecosystem-and the threats that now put it at risk. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux.

Quinn, D. (1993). Ishmael. New York: A Bantam/Turner Book.

Shutkin, W. (2007). A republic of trees: Field notes on people, place, and the planet. San Francisco: The Public Press.

Sisson, E. A. (1982). Nature with children of all ages. Englewood-Cliffs, N.J.:  Prentice-Hall, Inc.

Van Noy, R. (2008). A natural sense of wonder: Connecting kids with nature through the seasons. Athens: University of Georgia Press.

Ward, J. (2008). I Love Dirt!: 52 Activities to Help You and Your Kids Discover the Wonders of Nature. Eshowe, KwaZulu-Natal: South Africa.

Wilson, E.O. (2006). The creation: An appeal to save life on earth. New York: W.W. Norton.

Some Notable and Recommended Websites

Institute for Earth Education: http://www.eartheducation.org

The Earth Charter Initiative is a diverse, global network of people, organizations, and institutions involved in promoting and implementing the values and principles of the Earth Charter. Read the Earth Charter on their site: http://www.earthcharterinaction.org/

Exploring Nature Educational Resource — an award-winning website with natural science content and materials for educators, students, and parents: http://www.exploringnature.org/

Kidsgardening.org offers resources for parents about gardening with children:  http://www.kidsgardening.com

National Wildlife Federation Kidzone: http://www.nwf.org/kids/

National Zoo's backyard activity ideas: http://nationalzoo.si.edu/Animals/BackyardBiology

Naturalist Jim Conrad's guide to neighborhood nature: http://www.backyardnature.net

No Child Left Inside Campaign at the Chesapeake Bay Foundation: http://www.cbf.org  (scan down page and click on NCLI link)

Sharing Nature Foundation offers information on programs for adult leaders, books and resources, and activities:  http://www.sharingnature.com/NatureActivities.html

Hooked on Nature offers age-appropriate activities children can do to connect with nature, a blog, and links to research: http://www.hookedonnature.org

U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service “Let’s Go Outside” Children in Nature Website - information for parents and activities for kids (hint, search for the Fish and Wildlife News Special Issue on Children and Nature, Summer/Fall 2007): http://www.fws.gov/children
Zero (carbon) Footprint Youth Calculator: http://zerofootprint.net/youth/neew

Richard Louv’s Website and the nature resources he recommends: http://richardlouv.com/children-nature-resources

“A Walk in the Woods: Right or Priviledge?” – article by Richard Louv in March-April issue of Orion Magazine: http://www.orionmagazine.org/index.php/articles/article/4401

Children Nature and You offers background information and tools that can help parents inspire children about the natural world can inspire: http://www.childrennatureandyou.org  

Abstracts of the academic research on NDD, available at the Children & Nature Network: http://www.childrenandnature.org/research/

In 2006, Michael Bentley retired from the faculty of teacher education of the University of Tennessee, Knoxville. He earned degrees in biology and science education at King’s College (PA), the University of Pennsylvania, and the University of Virginia. His four-decade career has included teaching at all levels as well as work in museum education and curriculum supervision. He has directed many funded projects and was instrumental in the founding of two schools. He currently serves as board co-chair for Community High School, Roanoke, VA (http://www.communityhigh.net). He continues to teach part time and write. His latest book is Teaching Constructivist Science, K–8: Nurturing Natural Investigators in the Standards-Based Classroom (2007, Corwin Press). His interests include science and environmental education, teacher education, curriculum studies, international education, and the nature of science in science education.