I recently met a young mother who showed me with great pride how her 2-year-old could easily navigate an iPad. Children today have an amazing grasp of digital technology. Studies show that they spend over 53 hours each week exploring the digital universe. But these same youngsters are missing a vital element to their well-being: interaction with the outside world.
It’s called “Nature-Deficit Disorder,” and according to Richard Louv, in his groundbreaking national bestseller Last Child in the Woods, we are rearing a generation of kids indoors with no direct contact with nature. “Nature-deficit disorder is not a medical diagnosis,” says Louv, “but a term I devised to describe what I believe are the human costs of alienation from nature.”
Most adults remember with fondness the special childhood freedom we enjoyed playing and roaming outside. Children today have much less freedom to explore. Parents see “outside” as a dangerous place. We teach our kids about “stranger danger” and caution them to be careful. Ticks and mosquitoes can spread diseases and snakes and coyotes are on the prowl. Children can fall or get lost. The list is endless of what could happen. We are great at teaching kids to fear the outside, but we neglect to teach them about the beauty and mystery of the natural world and appropriate ways to enjoy it.
Take your “Vitamin N” – The health benefits of spending time in nature:
There is a growing body of research that links physical, mental and spiritual health directly to our positive experience with nature. Depression, high blood pressure, diabetes, attention deficit disorder and obesity can be reduced by encouraging children to get outside and explore. Children who spend time in nature sleep better, are calmer and do better in school. Instead of viewing unscheduled time outside as “wasting time,” we need to see that connecting to nature is an opportunity for growth and adventure. Children learn self-reliance and good judgment and they may discover interests that will lead to lifetime careers or hobbies.
Be a nature mentor:
Peachtree City resident Sandy Hogan has instilled in her granddaughter Kaylee Babb a passionate love of gardening. Sandy says, “I believe we need to plant the love of gardening, fishing and hunting within our grandchildren so they will pass it on to their children.” Each winter, Kaylee and Sandy pour over seed catalogs to decide what different and unusual seeds to order. Only 9 years old, Kaylee can name most of the plants in her grandmother’s garden and can talk with confidence about how to grow flowers from seed and keep them healthy. Kaylee loves to see flowers bloom and hopes more children will get the gardening bug. Her advice to other kids, “Don’t give up on gardening even if some of your plants die. Keep on going.” Kaylee is in tune with the natural world around her and appreciates the beauty she nurtures outside in her grandmother’s garden.
Get outside with the kids!
Planning times outside with your children and grandchildren will help connect them to a magical world beyond their computer screens. Start by teaching them a few simple safety rules: stay on the trail; check crevasses before sticking your hand in a hole; “leaves of three –let it be!” Kids are quick to learn skills like using a compass or GPS and memorizing landmarks. They can learn to identify bird calls, animal tracks and plants. These skills can expand their horizons and give them an appreciation for our environment based on personal experience.
There are hundreds of ways you and your children can enjoy the natural world. Start a vegetable garden. Buy binoculars and become bird watchers. Take a hike at a local nature preserve. Go fishing. Visit the children’s garden at the Atlanta Botanical Garden. Certify your garden as a backyard wildlife habitat.
On Saturday, June 23, you can join thousands of families across the country who will be participating in the Great American Backyard Campout. The National Wildlife Federation has online resources to help children enjoy positive outdoors experiences. Go to http://www.nwf.org/Get-Outside or check out the helpful information from the Children & Nature Network at http://www.childrenandnature.org/.