Richard Louv, author, public speaker and co-founder of the Children & Nature Network, coined the term "nature-deficit disorder" to describe the negative consequences of children moving indoors and away from physical contact with the natural world. Though that was eight years ago, the tendency for today's kids to spend more time indoors and less time in nature began long before, and persists today.
The proliferation of cellphones and the evolution of video games, cable television and the Internet have exacerbated this trend. To the dismay of many health professionals, fitness experts and parents and teachers, America's children still aren't receiving enough guidance or encouragement to spend time exploring the natural world.
What research shows
Is there any good news here? A Nature Conservancy poll conducted two years ago found that children who have had a meaningful experience in nature are more likely to prefer spending time outdoors, express concern about environmental issues, and express interest in studying the environment or pursuing a natural resources career.
According to a Children & Nature Network study, time spent outdoors in nature enhances a child's academic achievement and improves test scores. Students improve cooperation skills when they spend time outside, honing their communications skills as they work through situations on the playground. Nature also helps students focus, including ADHD students, and children are happier and healthier when they spend time outside.
Nature and kid-friendly activities
What are some ways we can encourage children and adolescents to spend less time inside and more time outdoors?
Local parks, gardens and forests are good places to grow family bonds. Take your child for a walk to look at the trees growing in your neighborhood or local park. Discuss the different ways trees make our lives better, including cleaning our air and water, and creating habitat for birds and wildlife. Let the kids touch the bark on the trees and study their leaves, fruits and acorns up close.
In the forest
Is there a wooded setting close to your home? If so, you might like to check out the American Forest Foundation's website (www.forestfoundation.org) for fun learning activities your children can enjoy in a forested environment.
The U.S. Forest Service is working to get kids outdoors and connected to the natural world through cost-share funding to enhance children's programs in 18 states, including Oregon. The National Wildlife Federation's "Be Out There" program also works to raise awareness about the importance of more outdoor play activities for children. Since the passage in 2009 of House Bill 2544 — a bill supporting environmental education for students — Oregon, too, is looking for ways to encourage outdoor play for kids.
Some suggestions: Talk about the ways things are interconnected in a forested setting; compare bird calls, look for mushrooms or take a hike to a nearby pond or lake. Watch a sunset, or take a walk outside after dark to look at stars in the night sky. Another great way to help kids learn about the natural world? Examine a fallen log up close for plants, moss, insects and signs of birds or animal use. Lastly, visit ODF's Tillamook Forest Center. Situated 50 miles west of Portland and 22 miles east of Tillamook on Oregon Highway 6, there are plenty of trails and outdoor activities to enjoy, rain or shine.
In the classroom
If you're a schoolteacher or principal, plan learning activities that move children away from sedentary activities; try walks around the neighborhood or treks to local parks. With springtime upon us, growing a small garden with native plants or vegetables might be a great way to engage young minds in the wonders around them. Lastly, remember that field trips do not always have to involve buses or numerous volunteers.
Reducing childhood obesity and attention difficulties, a chance to improve the health and well-being of today's children, encouraging new hobbies and interests while raising national test scores — these are just a few reasons to head for the great outdoors with the children in our lives.
Cynthia Orlando has a degree in forest management and is a certified arborist with the Oregon Department of Forestry. She has two children, and lives in Springfield.