Why Outdoor Summer Camp
Today, kids are well aware of the global threats to their environment, but their physical contact, their intimacy with nature on a day-to-day basis, is fading. I believe our society is teaching young people to avoid direct experience in nature. That unintended message is delivered by schools, families, even organizations devoted to the outdoors, and codified into the legal and regulatory structures of many of our communities— effectively banning much of the kind of play that we enjoyed as children. Our institutions, urban/suburban design and cultural attitudes unconsciously associate nature with doom, while disassociating the outdoors from joy and solitude. Well-meaning public school systems, media and parents are scaring children straight out of the woods and fields. Many parents are aware of the change, and they sense its importance.
When asked, they cite a number of everyday reasons why their children spend less time in nature than they themselves did, including disappearing access to natural areas, competition from television and computers, dangerous traffic, more homework and other time pressures. Most of
all, parents cite fear of "stranger danger," as round-the-clock news coverage conditions them to believe in an epidemic of child-snatchings, despite evidence that the number has been falling for years.
As a result, children's worlds, limitless in cyberspace, are shrinking in reality. As the nature deficit grows, new studies demonstrate just how important direct contact with the outdoors is to healthy human development. Most of the new evidence that connects nature to well-being and restoration has focused on adults, but during the past decade, scientists have begun to study the impact of nature on child development. Environmental psychologists reported in 2003 that nature in or around the home, or simply a room with a view of a natural landscape, helped protect the psychological well-being of the children.
Researchers have found that children with disabilities gain enhanced body image and positive behavior changes through direct interaction with nature. Studies of outdoor education programs geared toward troubled youth – especially those diagnosed with mental health problems - show a clear therapeutic value. Some of the most intriguing studies are being done by the Human-Environment Research Laboratory at the University of Illinois, where researchers have discovered that children as young as five showed a significant reduction in the symptoms of Attention-Deficit Disorder when they engaged with nature. Could nature therapy be a new option for ADD treatment?
Meanwhile, the California-based State Education and Environmental Roundtable, a national effort to study environment-based education, found that schools that use outdoor classrooms,among other techniques, produce student gains in social studies, science, language arts and math; improved standardized test scores and grade-point averages; and enhanced skills in problem-solving, critical thinking and decision-making. In addition, evidence suggests that time in natural surroundings stimulates children's creativity.
People who care about children and the future of the environment need to know about such research, but for the most part, they do not. Today we see dramatic increases in childhood. obesity, attention difficulties and depression. When these issues are discussed at the conference table or the kitchen table, direct childhood experience in nature is seldom mentioned. Yet, the growing nature deficit experienced by today's children, and potentially for generations to come, may be the most important common denominator.
I am not suggesting that we bring back the free-range childhood of the 1950s. Those days are over. But, with a deeper understanding of the importance of nature play to healthy child development, and to their sense of connection to the world, we can create safe zones for nature exploration. We can preserve the open space in our cities, and even design and build new kinds of communities, using the principles of green urbanism. We can weave nature therapy into our health-care system, natural experiences into our classrooms. In education, we can build a No Child Left Inside movement.
And, we can challenge environmental organizations to take this issue seriously. For if the disconnection between children and nature continues, who will become the future stewards of the earth—and who will swing on birches?
Whether you grew up in a suburb, on a farm, or in a big city, you probably spent a lot of time playing outside, getting dirty, and coming home happy. Maybe you watched ants making anthills in your backyard, climbed trees in the park, or simply lay in the grass contemplating the drifting clouds. Unfortunately, young children today do not have as many direct experiences with nature, and it's taking a toll. Richard Louv, author of Last Child in the Woods: Saving Our Children from Nature-Deficit Disorder, maintains that this disconnect from the natural world is producing ill effects in both mind and body. But he's optimistic that well-meaning, forward-thinking parents and educators can close the kid-nature gap. "We should not think of a child's experience in nature as an extracurricular activity," says Louv. "It should be thought of as vital to children's health and development." The editors of Scholastic's Parent & Child talked with Louv about his book.
Parent & Child: Why do children need a meaningful relationship with nature? Richard Louv: Research suggests that a connection to nature is biologically innate; as humans, we have an affinity for the natural world. When children spend most of their time indoors, they miss out. Problems associated with alienation from nature include familiar maladies: depression, obesity, and attention deficit disorder. Kids who have direct access to nature are better learners. Exposure to nature has been shown to reduce stress and increase attention spans.
When a child is out in nature, all the senses get activated. He is immersed in something bigger than himself, rather than focusing narrowly on one thing, such as a computer screen. He's seeing,hearing, touching, even tasting. Out in nature, a child's brain has the chance to rejuvenate, so the next time he has to focus and pay attention, perhaps in school, he'll do better.
But even if kids don't have any of the specific problems mentioned above, kids who don't get out much lack the sense of wonder that only nature can provide. I've taken kids into the woods who've never been there. At first, they're scared because it's unfamiliar, but then you can see them open up and start exploring