In Case You Missed It
Boulderganic Fall 2009
Student Guide 2009
Boulder Weekly Sweet 16 Anniversary
Summer Scene 2009
Best of Boulder 2009
Annual Manual 2009
Newspaper of the Future
Kids Camp Guide 2009
Wedding Marketplace 09
Student Guide 2008
Best of Boulder 2008
Annual Manual 2008
Join Our Mailing List
|July 17-23, 2008
Leave no child inside
How nature-deficit disorder is affecting our kids by Dana Logan
Remember being a kid and turning over a rock in the woods? Underneath you’d find earthworms and roly-polies — sometimes even a snake. You’d run down the street and find the neighbor kids and, together, you would climb a tree, then go down to the creek to catch tadpoles. By dinnertime, you would have been out for hours. You’d finally come home sporting grass stains on your knees and mud on your shoes. Your day’s adventures would supply you with stories of all the neat things that you’d seen — perfect dinnertime conversation, as far as you were concerned (even if your mom thought the one about the vultures you saw eating the dead deer carcass was inappropriate to discuss at the table).
Now compare that experience — considered by most people who remember their own version of this story to be a crucial part of their childhood — with the kid who spends 44 hours a week, the current national average, plugged into some kind of electronic medium. The latter spends hours upon hours indoors, on a computer, in front of a television and focused on a screen. If he isn’t listening to his iPod, he’s usually playing a video game and the last time he was outside was when he walked between the car and the house after coming home from the movies.
Experts are worried about this kid — and not just because he spends so much time in front of a screen.
“The other question,” says Richard Louv, “is what are they not doing when they are in front of the television? If they’re not outside, if they’re not experiencing nature, they’re not using all of their senses at the same time.”
Louv, the author of the national bestseller Last Child in the Woods: Saving our Children from Nature-Deficit Disorder and the founder of a movement that aims to get kids back outside and into the natural world, explains that using all of your senses at the same time— something inherent to exploring the natural world — is the definition of the optimum state of learning. And outdoor exploration doesn’t just help kids learn better. Studies show that playing in nature has a huge impact on a kid’s physical health, stress reduction, attention span and general wellbeing.
But despite all the benefits that outdoor play offers, more and more kids are spending their time inside instead of out. In fact, according to a recent report put out by the National Wildlife Federation, children are spending half as much time outside as they did 20 years ago.
“Technology is part of this — the proliferation of video games and computers and iPhones and iPods are everywhere in our lives. But the truth is, prior generations experienced waves of incoming technology that were novel and interesting,” says Louv. “Color television, in my memory, was a big deal — and it may have kept a few of us in a little bit longer during the week to watch Bonanza in color, but then we ran outside and we played Bonanza.”
While it would be easy to point the finger at technology, the reasons are actually much broader and deeper.
“I think it’s probably too easy to blame it on computers and video games,” says Louv. “It’s kind of like video games are the new rock and roll — the reason for all our sins. Obviously, electronics are part of it, but I think if we focus too much on blaming video games, for instance, two things will happen. One is, we’ll drive kids even more into spending more time on video games. The second thing is, the more we focus on electronics, the less we’ll focus on the other reasons that I think actually are deeper reasons.”
One of them, Louv explains, is the over-structuring of modern childhood. In contrast to the days when moms would utter the phrase “go out and play” and a kid would play outside without constant supervision or specific goals, children today are rushed from school to violin practice to a soccer game — each moment of a kid’s day planned out and scheduled, supervised and structured.
“That is a major issue here — the sense of anxiety that our kids will fall behind if they’re not overloaded with structured activity,” he says.
And while organized sports and other activities can be great for kids in moderation, studies have shown that it’s the unstructured exploratory play in nature that offers benefits like reduced stress and increased learning.
“Balance is the most important thing that anyone can do for their children,” says Jill Dreves, founder and executive director of the Wild Bear Nature Discovery Center in Nederland. “So if you’re not providing time to just play in the natural world, it’s really not a balanced life — you’re really holding them back from developing who they are socially, emotionally. I mean, how much did we all learn from climbing a tree and hanging out there for a while. We can all remember those times. [Today’s] kids don’t have that as much.”
Instead of exploring the natural world with all their senses, kids are watching television shows about nature or learning about habitats that exist in faraway places.
“What we want them to have is the experience of just being out there — of just mucking around, of digging a hole, of climbing a tree, of building a fort, of finding a bug — all of those great things that are experiential. The experience is what counts far more than the information,” says Louv. “They’re getting lots of information about nature — most of it has nothing to do with their particular region. It has to do with the Amazon rainforest or something far away. They have Animal Planet. What they don’t have is the hands-dirty, feet-wet experience of just having fun in nature. And that is elemental.”
And while kids across America are experiencing a lack of this outdoor exploration, in Boulder County, where there are open spaces available and an atmosphere that seems to encourage being involved in outdoor activities, one may wonder kids here are affected by nature-deficit disorder.
“Oh, absolutely and positively. The biggest premise to this whole movement that Richard Louv has made is the unstructured play in the woods. We just are fearful. Look at the fear base around the mountain lions and around the bears and around the bees,” says Dreves. “We’re fortunate to live in a county that has this great perspective to pass taxes to preserve land — and thank God for that — but still we have this deficit of unstructured play in the woods. We’re afraid of the bogeyman, and there’s a lot of fear.”
And parental fear, says Louv, is the even deeper reason that kids aren’t getting the experience with nature that their parents had.
“[Parents] are scared to death — mainly of stranger danger,” he says. “The irony is that when you look at the actual statistics on stranger abduction, they’re extremely small compared to what we believe they are. The number of violent crimes against children has been going down. There’s a Duke University study that shows that it’s now at the mid-1970s level. After going up for quite a while, it just started dropping for the last 20 years. And if that’s true, then why is our perception of crime skyrocketing?”
He blames the 24-hour news cycle for that one. A few local cases of terrible crimes against children get blown up into national news, then repeated over and over again.
“That’s the very definition of conditioning,” he says. “We are being conditioned to live in a state of fear and that is dramatically changing our lives.”
Jennelle Freeston, an interpretive naturalist for the city of Boulder open space and mountain parks program, cites a study in which researchers interviewed 800 moms across the country.
“Safety was right up there as almost their number one concern of why they don’t let their kids outside playing unstructured,” Freeston says.
The paradox is that to provide children with more unstructured outdoor playtime, adults are going to have to structure it.
“We’re just going to have to do that with a sense of humor and working out new ways to do it,” Louv says. “And there are people — outdoor educators and nature centers — that are working out techniques to give kids a sense of solitude and stand back and not hover over them. What we don’t want is to take kids out in the woods and then hover over them with nature flashcards.”
“They need to explore their woods on their own terms,” she says.
Freeston’s childhood in Erie, Penn., allowed for plenty of unstructured play.
“I try not to romanticize it, but you know, it was there,” she says. “It was accessible. It was fun. The sky was the limit. My parents weren’t sitting there hovering over me, telling me what to do and what to look for. I was exploring all on my own.”
As an environmental educator, Freeston leads hikes for kids through Boulder’s Open Space and Mountain Parks Program and she says that occasionally the hikes are structured, but many times the only goal is to get kids out in nature and get them thinking.
“Sometimes we’ll get a school group out there, and it’s very curriculum driven and the teachers want to make sure that certain aspects get in — so sometimes we’ll try to get a point across,” she says. “But there are other times where it’s more for cultivating a sense of place with the land and an individual connection. We’re out there with them, they’re supervised, but we’ll let the kids sort of scatter along the trail and find their own special spot and sort of sit for a while. It just gets the kids to slow down, focus.”
But even if there’s not an organized hike to encourage kids to seek out nature experiences or a creek in the backyard, there are still opportunities for exploration every day.
“I think you can experience nature anywhere you are,” Dreves says. “Getting out there to camp — set your tent up somewhere. Set the tent up in the backyard. Sit outside at night and check out the sky. Listen to the sounds. What’s out there? A whole new world exists. You can do that anywhere.”
Louv says that with gas prices increasing around every turn, an emphasis on “nearby nature” is going to be as important as wilderness experiences.
“Not everybody has the luxury of having the woods in their backyard,” says Dreves. “So I think it’s also about investigating the crack in your sidewalk and not always needing to kill the spider that’s crawling on the wall. It’s allowing kids to bring the dirt inside every so often and not to be so sanitized all the time. It’s the regard for other life besides ourselves and understanding that we are connected to it.”
And that’s important, not only because of the inherent benefits that we see in kids that are exposed to nature, but also because studies of environmentalists and conservationists show that, almost across the board, they had some sort of transcendent experience in nature when they were kids.
“Where will the future stewards of the Earth come from?” asks Louv. “That depends not so much on the information about global warming. It depends on the experience of [today’s kids] just having joy in nature. Literally, this is about the health of future generations and our children. This is also about the health of the Earth.”
Back to Top