- The Washington Times - Saturday, July 30, 2005

Paul and Bridget Bernetsky’s six children range in age from 2 to 14. Outdoors, though, the wide age range evens out. Splashing in a stream, as all six children were doing one recent Sunday at Cunningham Falls State Park in Thurmont, Md., is a great unifier. So are turning sticks into “Star Wars” light sabers, stacking rocks and looking for fish.

“Outdoors gives you the opportunity to step back,” says Mr. Bernetsky, whose family lives in Brookeville. “It gives you a chance to appreciate what God has given us.

“Too many of our relationships are one-dimensional. You’ve got your Game Cubes, your computer screens — we all have that stuff — but the things I hope the kids remember at the end of the summer are times like this, not the great game they played on the computer.”

The Bernetskys — he works for a Catholic nonprofit organization; she home-schools the children — are making opportunities for their family to get close to nature.

Those opportunities don’t have to be terribly sophisticated. Looking for fireflies in the back yard can have as much of an impact on a small child as a trek to a national park, says Traci Price, director of public programs for Discovery Creek Children’s Museum in Glen Echo.

“Nature to a lot of people can be overwhelming,” Ms. Price says. “Too many people think of scary bugs in the forest rather than the small level. Nature for young children is more than a fun and playful experience. It engages them with learning with all their senses. Some of the most important components of play are the ability to explore, for self-discovery and learning how all living things are connected.”

Getting outside

Many families are ignoring the small chances — such as catching lightning bugs on a summer night — as well as the big, such as camping, says Richard Louv, author of the new book “Last Child in the Woods: Saving Our Children From Nature-Deficit Disorder.”

Mr. Louv is quick to point out that there is no real medical diagnosis of “nature-deficit disorder.” It is a description he coined to describe Americans’ growing disconnection from nature and the far-reaching impact that will have.

Mr. Louv first noticed the disconnect more than a decade ago when he interviewed one youngster who said he preferred playing inside “because that’s where the electrical outlets are.”

“Nature gives kids a sense of wonder, and that is important,” Mr. Louv says from his home in San Diego, “but it is hard to have a sense of wonder when you are playing Grand Theft Auto.”

Electronics would be an easy scapegoat, but the problem runs deeper, Mr. Louv says. In “Last Child in the Woods,” he says the reasons Americans have headed indoors include:

Residential community associations that send children the message to keep off the grass. Gone are the days of building a fort in a vacant lot, he says. Fifty-four million Americans live in developments ruled by an association, according to the Community Associations Institute, an advocacy group for homeowners associations. That’s up from 2.1 million in 1970.

“Almost every new development in the last 20 years has a long list of covenants and restrictions,” Mr. Louv says. “I know of one development that has a rule against children playing with sidewalk chalk.

“Associations have rules for everything from where you can plant a rosebush to where you can hang a flag, let alone build a treehouse. My own community association has gone around tearing down treehouses, forts and basketball hoops. Kids are getting the message that playing outdoors must be illegal.”

• Fear — of everything from disease-carrying ticks to the boogeyman in the woods.

“Fear is the emotion that separates a developing child from the full, essential benefits of nature,” Mr. Louv writes in his book.

“A lot of this is misled fear,” he says. “When you look at the actual numbers, abductions have been going down. At the same time, media has increased, so we get nonstop coverage of a handful of these crimes.”

Mr. Louv knows there probably is no going back to the days when children went in from playing when the streetlights came on. He says families need to be more intentional about outdoor experiences. If children are not allowed to roam the woods, families should hike together, he says.

Emmet Nelson of Westminster, Md., says he and his three children — Michael, 9, Abagayle, 5, and Emehlia, 3 — like to do outdoorsy things. Some of the activities, such as playing with the family’s cats, dogs and pet spider, happen naturally at home. Others are more intentional, such as camping or looking for crayfish at Cunningham Falls.

“The kids most definitely learn things by playing outdoors,” he says. “They learn about survival of the fittest, about how nature works.”

Michael puts it in simpler terms: “I love playing outside,” he says. “I like getting all tired out.”

No nature?

The reasoning that children get their outdoor time playing outdoor sports isn’t good enough, Mr. Louv says. Look at the past 20 years — more children than ever are playing on sports teams, but the number of overweight children keeps rising.

“Playing soccer one time a week is not taking care of a kid’s physical needs,” Mr. Louv says.

Ms. Price says that unstructured time to explore natural places provides a valuable learning experience.

“My experience related to outdoor education is that it is an incredible backdrop for team building,” she says. “In the outdoors, children can develop a sense of respect for place, enabling them to have a respect for one another.”

The respect of place — or lack of it — is what worries Mr. Louv about the future. If children don’t spend time in the natural environment, how can they be concerned about it in the future?

“When you grow up attached to nature, then you care for it more,” he says.

The nature disconnect also concerns Gerry Bishop, director of children’s publications for the nonprofit National Wildlife Federation. Mr. Bishop admits that nature is a hard sell in this era. He points out that the average American can identify 10,000 corporate logos but just 10 native trees.

“Our research shows that nature can have a profound impact on people,” he says, “but fewer people have a deep love of nature. Children today have computer games and exciting TV shows that provide tremendous sensory stimulation. A walk in the woods to look at a toad, is that going to make the same impression?”

There is evidence that outdoor experiences can have a calming effect on some children. University of Illinois scientists recently studied 406 children ages 5 to 18 and found that those who spent a significant amount of time outdoors showed a reduction in their symptoms of attention-deficit (hyperactivity) disorder. Authors Frances Kuo and Andrea Faber Taylor suggest that “green time” might be an effective supplement to medication and behavioral treatment.

Other studies have shown that hospital patients whose rooms overlooked trees often had shorter stays and that looking at an aquarium for 20 minutes can lower blood pressure.

Mr. Bernetsky, who formerly worked as a camping adviser for the Boy Scouts of America, says he sees the outdoors as a big influence on his children’s creativity.

“The outdoors pulls you away,” he says. “You see yourself in a big world instead of a one-dimensional one. One of the most important things I learned from the outdoors is self-reliance. In life, you are always going to be dealt things in which you have to make choices. When you are camping and you have burned all the pancake batter, what are you going to do? That’s a great place to start.”

More info:

Books —

• “The Kids’ Nature Book: 365 Indoor/Outdoor Activities and Experiences,” by Susan Milord, Williamson Publishing, 1996. This book has nature-themed projects and experiments for every day of the year.

• “Fun With Nature,” by Mel Boring, Northword Press, 1998. This book guides children through discovering the worlds of butterflies, bugs, caterpillars, turtles and other wildlife. Children will learn how to identify various creatures as well as learn about their eating, sleeping and nesting habits.

• “Nature in a Nutshell for Kids: Over 100 Activities You Can Do in 10 Minutes or Less,” by Jean Potter, Wiley, 1995. This book has ideas for quick outdoor family fun.

• “Last Child in the Woods: Saving Our Children From Nature-Deficit Disorder,” by Richard Louv, Algonquin Books of Chapel Hill, 2005. This book discusses why today’s children don’t appreciate nature and the outdoors and what the long-term effects will be. Mr. Louv also offers suggestions for families desiring to spend more time outdoors.

Associations —

• National Wildlife Federation, 11100 Wildlife Center Drive, Reston, VA 20190. Phone: 800/822-9919. Web site: www.nwf.org. The nonprofit National Wildlife Federation has many publications, including Ranger Rick and Your Big Backyard magazines, that will appeal to children. The organization’s Web site has many interactive nature activities and project suggestions for children. The NWF’s backyard habitats program encourages and guides families in creating backyard habitats as well as smaller projects such as hummingbird feeders and bat houses.

Online —

• The Web site of National Geographic Kids magazine (www.nationalgeographic.com/kids) has lots of activities, games and experiments for young nature lovers.

• Try Science (www.tryscience.org), a child-oriented Web site sponsored by the Association of Science-Technology Centers, has outdoor experiment ideas, a guide to science centers worldwide, and live-cams from various science centers.

• The United States Geological Survey (http://interactive2.usgs.gov/learningweb/students/) has a site for students to play games and do research on the environment.

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