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News: Send the Kids Outside

Children's estrangement from nature causes concern

By Chris Charlson · February 8th, 2006 · News
  (L-R) Griffin Ulsh, Ryan Jenka, Kaelyn Ackerman, Bella Smith, Erin Benedict and Jacob Dougherty experience the great outdoors at the Cincinnati Nature Center.
Graham Lienhart

(L-R) Griffin Ulsh, Ryan Jenka, Kaelyn Ackerman, Bella Smith, Erin Benedict and Jacob Dougherty experience the great outdoors at the Cincinnati Nature Center.

Kids today are techno savvy. Most possess crack computer skills, expert gaming knowledge and can text-message at breakneck speed. Sadly, very few know the feel of mud squishing between their toes, the smell of fresh honeysuckle or the tickle of a caterpillar inching across their hand. As manicured lawns, disappearing green spaces and multimedia become the standard, more and more children are losing touch with nature in favor of the great indoors.

To address this growing phenomenon, the Cincinnati Nature Center (CNC) and the Environmental Council at Cincinnati Country Day School present a lecture Saturday featuring Richard Louv, author of Last Child in the Woods: Saving Our Children from Nature-Deficit Disorder. Louv will address the negative impact associated with the growing disconnection between children and nature and advise parents, teachers and caregivers on how to effect change.

Learning, not leisure
For tens of thousands of years, children spent much of their early years playing or working in natural surroundings, Louv says. That pattern has been transformed in three or four decades, with implications for physical, emotional and spiritual health.

"I believe this is one of the most important and least studied issues in our time," he says.

Some outward physiological impacts include obesity in children, increased attention deficit disorder (ADD) and decreased coordination, as well as less obvious psychological symptoms such as depression and stifled creativity. Louv uses the term "nature-deficit disorder" to refer to a condition resulting in diminished use of the senses, attention difficulties and higher rates of emotional and physical illnesses.

Fortunately, studies have shown many of the symptoms can be reversed by reintroducing children to the outdoors, he says.

"Everyone who lives with or works with children needs to know about these researchers' studies, about the growing deficit of nature experience and the implications for our society as a whole," he says.

Educating the child, however, doesn't always solve the problem, according to Louv. Many parents suffer from "ecophobia," a fear of the outdoors or the "boogeyman syndrome," with parents fearing their child will be abducted outside.

To fully re-acclimate children, Louv says parents must feel comfortable and be enthusiastic about the outdoors and learn to enjoy nature as a family.

"There are perils in this world, but they can be surmounted," he says. "There are more certain dangers if nature is removed."

The book marks Louv's seventh in a series, all leading up to his latest and most critically acclaimed. He says the topic is a concern he's felt for more than 20 years.

To conduct research, Louv says he "cast a very wide net," drawing from children, parents, educators and experts.

"I'd like to see nature time viewed less as leisure time and more as development time," he says. "I'd like to see nature on the list of activities that parents view as essential to good parenting, and I'd like to see widespread institutional change in support of that."

This year Cincinnati Country Day School created an environmental council designed to focus on environmental awareness and increase nature studies in kindergarten through 12th grade.

Life-science teacher and council member Dan Woods says the school also plans to create an outdoor education center where students will receive hands-on experience. Each year, Woods takes students on nature walks and says he's continually surprised by how little some know about the plants and animals that thrive just outside.

"I think the green spaces are there," he says. "I just don't think the people necessarily have time to go out and enjoy them like they used to. Their lives these days are very structured, so they go from one event to another event to another event (and) don't have any of the quiet moments in between to prep for an event or just go out and have a chance invent some entertainment on their own."

Flat walkers
Each year the CNC features a well-known speaker during the month of February as part of its lecture series. Connie Brockman, director of education at the center, says she's thrilled that Louv will be speaking. She expects a large turnout, as she says many parents recognize a problem exists but need to network with other parents to confirm their suspicions.

"We can help a parent feel comfortable in nature and give them opportunities to experience it with their kids, but then we're pretty much putting the ball back in their court," Brockman says. "We're going to give you some skills, ideas and opportunities to spend time in nature with your kids, but don't just do it at the nature center -- do it every chance you get."

Throughout the year, CNC offers myriad events to involve and introduce families to nature, including the Great Outdoor Weekend, a complimentary sampling of the various activities. The organization also offers the Little Adventures program designed to introduce 3- and 4-year-olds to the touch and feel of outside.

"One of the things Richard Louv mentions in his book is that kids need to walk on uneven surfaces in order to develop their muscle coordination, and for most kids nowadays everything is flat," Brockman says. "One of the things we try to do in our Little Adventures program is get these kids walking on uneven terrain, and it remarkably helps them develop grace -- and that's something that most parents would never even dream of.

"Who ever thought they have to walk and trip and stumble in order to develop their coordination?"

RICHARD LOUV presents his lecture at 1 p.m. Saturday at Cincinnati Country Day School, 6905 Given Road, Indian Hill. Following the program is an environmental resource fair featuring nearly 20 organizations, with a hands-on outdoor activity center for children ages 3 through 10. Admission for the lecture is $10; admission for the children's activities is $1. To register, call 513-965-4249 or visit www.CincyNature.org.


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