Reconnecting Children and Nature
Most kids today have limited direct experience with the outdoors. If they are outdoors, it is likely to be in organized sports and on playground equipment, often on asphalt play grounds. The defining experience of many of today’s youth and children is indoors, at home or in school, or in a car. Shuttled from school to church to soccer to dance class to day camp, most of our children are being given a virtual, vicarious, electronic, and cocooned experience of childhood. Alternatively, some are left home alone, under what author Richard Louv calls “virtual house arrest”—by themselves for hours at a time, hooked in to an electronic umbilical cord of today’s contemporary lifestyle. In 2006, I joined Richard Louv, author of Last Child in the Woods: Saving Our Children from Nature Deficit Disorder, and others to co-found the Children & Nature Network, a non-profit organization with the mission of building a movement to reconnect children and nature.
Fearful Parents Keep Children Indoors
A host of lifestyle changes in the past few decades has contributed to a sedentary generation of U.S. youth. According to a study conducted by the Kaiser Family Foundation (2005, 2006), kids are spending as much as 60 hours a week involved in electronic media. One of the major contributing factors is that adults fear for their children’s safety. A study in 2004 found that 82 percent of mothers with children between the ages of 3 and 12 cited crime and safety concerns as one of the primary reasons they do not allow their children to play outdoors (Clements, 2004). Often children are also committed to hectic schedules that leave them with little unstructured time for natural play in the outdoors.
How Nature Relieves Stress
Research indicates that one of the best antidotes to a stressful lifestyle is to spend time in natural settings outdoors. Children who spend time outdoors are likely to be:
- more cooperative
- better problem solvers
- more creative
Children need leisurely, unscripted, and exploratory hours to find the wonders in their own backyards and neighborhoods, from discovering the beauty of the stars in the night sky to watching lizards on a warm summer’s day.
Detrimental Outcomes of NDD
There is evidence to suggest that outcomes associated with children’s disconnect from nature include
- diminished health
- reduced cognitive, creative, and problem-solving capacities
- lower school achievement
- lower self esteem
- less self discipline
- attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD)
Nature Can Improve Mental Health and Cognition
Children’s cognitive flexibility and creativity are enhanced if they learn to problem-solve in natural settings rather than in highly controlled, human-dominated settings like concrete playgrounds and manicured playing fields with little ecological diversity. There are also mental health benefits to being outside. There is now a substantial body of work that indicates the simple act of going outdoors reduces stress, anxiety, depression, and attention-deficit disorders. The results are dramatic for people of all ages.
Becoming Stewards of the Environment
If we are in the outdoors often enough to watch and experience the seasonal changes, we learn about “place”, natural cycles, and changes within an ecological setting. We will be far more likely to care about the health of living systems over time, more likely to make informed decisions, and more likely to effect responsible actions.
Actions We Can Each Take
- Take a child outside—and create the opportunity for your children to have unstructured time to play outdoors every day.
- Create a nature club for families and plan monthly outings with other parents and families in your community.
- Start a new kind of neighborhood watch so that children can play within sight of adults while still experiencing some of the wonder and learning inspired through free range play.
- Ride your bike or walk to school with your children and others in the neighborhood.
- Encourage nature-based, child-friendly spaces and places throughout communities.
- Make reconnecting children and nature a priority.
- Educate parents, grandparents, and other caregivers about the cognitive, physiological, and emotional benefits to children who play in the outdoors on a regular basis.
- Engage the local medical community to encourage physicians and other medical practitioners to prescribe nature-play because it is good for children.
- Educate local architects, builders, community planners, and civic leaders about the need for areas of native habitats in planned developments and existing neighborhoods, so children have places to play that foster their imagination.
- Build new partnerships and support existing efforts to bring the resources of the private sector together with public agencies in bold, balanced, and conserving ways to achieve a sustainable future.
- Get other parents and the community involved—because nature-based learning is good for everyone.
Our Living Legacy
Together we can heal the separation between children and nature, by re-establishing a healthy, natural balance between technology and natural systems. We can build a movement that succeeds in reconnecting children and nature, inspiring a new generation to believe in a better future.
Children & Nature Network (C&NN), www.childrenandnature.org, is a non-profit organization co-founded by Richard Louv, Cheryl Charles, and others to build a movement to reconnect children and nature. C&NN provides news, articles, resources, and annotated bibliographies of research while encouraging grassroots leadership. Cheryl Charles, Ph.D., is an educator, author, innovator, and organizational executive, and co-founder of the Children & Nature Network, www.childrenandnature.org.