My father probably wouldn’t think to call himself an “outdoorsman.” He has simply lived his life as a man, outdoors. Being outside is part of who he is. He skis, climbs, hikes, bikes, hunts, and fishes. His friends call him “Bear,” and his grand adventures have spanned a lifetime.
Luckily for me, he shared his love of getting outside and even put up with my (sometimes) less-than-enthusiastic attitude. He and my mother also raised me without a television, so I think I had an advantage over other kids my age--instead of flipping on TV and watching The Simpsons, my brother and I climbed trees, splashed in mud puddles, or built snow forts.
I never thought the world would be any different. Then along came the Internet, cell phones, personal computers, digital cameras, iPods and Wii. We now spend our time texting, tweeting, blogging and surfing. Playing tennis on the Wii seems to have replaced actually playing tennis. The latest Oxford Picture Dictionary for Kids removed “otter,” “acorn” and “dandelion,” and added “blog,” “Mp3 player” and “voicemail” (to name a few). The world has officially changed.
A Harsh Reality
I’m not an anti-digital age person. I love my electronic gadgets, and enjoy a well-written TV show. I’ve been known to check out Facebook, and someday I hope to start a blog.
Technology is not the problem--it’s the amount of time we spend doing these things, and even more alarmingly, the amount of time children spend doing these things. The Nature Conservancy funded a 2008 study that confirmed what many of us have suspected for years: Americans spend more time in front of the television than outside. In fact, the average child spends only 30 minutes unstructured time outdoors each week. Too much time behind a screen can lead to social isolation, underachievement in school, lack of motivation and numerous health problems, including obesity.
Although the state of our current connection to nature and the related health impacts are worrisome, there is a growing movement toward reintroducing nature into our lives. Rather than asking us to give up cell phones and laptops, it focuses on balance, and how to find a realistic way to incorporate a daily dose of nature into our routines.
In Anchorage, Alaska, the Get Outdoors Anchorage Coalition hosted a working summit to discuss current challenges in getting children outside and what actions could be taken to reconnect them to nature. Community leaders, doctors, teachers, parents, government officials and design professionals attended, and left feeling empowered by the exchange of ideas and the positive outlook for the future.
“I really enjoyed getting to meet people from all different professions and hearing their perspective on the importance of reconnecting our children to nature, and also what each one of us can do to make that happen,” says Jeff Hagge, an architect from USKH, a multi-discipline design firm. “From my perspective, when I am designing a new school, I can incorporate elements that subtly encourage students to get outside. This can be everything from making sure that play areas are designed for all seasons, using the school to shelter students from the north wind, positioning windows to take advantage of the sun, heating walkways, and designing the roof to not shed snow and ice on walkways or entrances.”
These might seem like small changes, but combined, they make outdoor activity--especially during long winters--a more inviting prospect.
A Growing Effort
The Get Outdoors Anchorage Coalition isn’t alone in organizing this type of event--New Hampshire held a Leave No Child Inside forum, South Dakota launched its No Child Left Inside campaign, and the Minnesota Arboretum hosted the Nature, Children, and Families: A Necessary Connection conference. Politicians also are jumping on board--California Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger signed the Children’s Outdoor Bill of Rights, and Illinois Governor Pat Quinn spoke about nature-deficit disorder in his first press conference as governor.
Many organizations have already put the concept of reconnecting with nature into action for both children and adults. In Detroit, Mich., at Catherine Ferguson Academy, students are offered classes in agri-science, which, in addition to lab work, lectures and tests, include caring for animals and gardens in the school’s “backyard farm.” Students grow feed for the animals and fruits and vegetables for themselves and their families. They’ve also built a barn and fences for their farm.
In Caledon, Ontario, Peace Ranch operates as a “therapeutic farm”--a community mental-health agency where residents learn to manage their schizophrenia by participating in horticulture, animal husbandry, equestrianism, fitness, art and music programs. A study by the University of Illinois supports the importance of nature in helping mentally ill patients, and shows that taking a walk outside is equal to or more effective than medication in aiding children with Attention Deficit/Hyperactivity Disorder to concentrate.
Talk Is Cheap
Much of this momentum can be attributed to author Richard Louv’s book, Last Child in the Woods: Saving Our Children from Nature-Deficit Disorder. In this book, Louv coins the term “nature deficit,” and links it to rises in obesity, attention disorders and depression. His book inspired the creation of the Children and Nature Network (C&NN), which “encourages and supports the people and organizations working to reconnect children with nature.”
As momentum continues to build and our lifestyles continue to shift to a balance between technology and nature, I urge each one of you to do your part to get outside. You’ll be happier and healthier for it, and might just inspire those around you to do the same. I suffer from the same malady that so many of us do--it’s easier to talk the talk (or in my case, write the talk) than it is to walk the walk.
I sit here, in front of a screen, earnestly researching and writing about the need for all of us to fling open the door and run for the nearest mountain. And yet, by the time I am finished writing, it will be dark outside, the temperature will be below zero, and the last thing I will want to do is strap on my skis. The couch, a bowl of soup and the latest episode of The Office are calling my name. Will I give in to the siren song of mindless relaxation? No, not tonight! Tonight I will silently glide through the forest with the moon above and a chill on my cheeks. The couch and the soup will wait. The Office is being recorded. And someday, when I have children of my own, I’ll take them to the trails and begin a lifetime of appreciation of nature’s greatest gift to us all--itself.
For more information, the C&NN Web site, www.childrenandnatures.org, offers a wealth of research, relevant news and practical advice.
Gretchen Wieman is a Marketing Coordinator for USKH Inc. A lifelong Alaskan, she lives, works, and plays in Anchorage. Her high school graduation gift from her father was a pack filled with a tent, a sleeping bag and a stove. He told her that now she could go anywhere. Thanks, Dad.