We've all heard about the No Child Left Inside initiatives launched around the country in recent years by parents, educators and health professionals worried about what's been termed "nature deficit disorder" and its links to the epidemic of childhood obesity.
The implication is that we need to get our children outside and away from screens — computer, smartphone, television and other types — but a lot of us aren't sure why or how to do it. So we sought out people in Southern Oregon who spend their time educating people about the outdoors and asked them for some tips.
The heart of it is that you don't need a lot of equipment and planning. Just "get outside" and watch how nature has a way of giving kids millions of ideas for playful and educational things to do.
Convinced of the importance of raising nature-loving kids, a group of parents at Talent Elementary school asked the school board there to set up an Outdoor Discovery School that would provide all the academics but spend lots of time outside — romping, playing, going to parks and nature centers, hiking trails and going on field trips to the coast and wildlife sanctuaries of Eastern Oregon.
"Nature is inherently educational," says teacher Erin Mahaney. "Children naturally enjoy learning about it and are connected to it. We all are.
"As a society, we sanitize and structure all the time, but kids like to explore, build fairy houses and find things to keep themselves interested. They can and do entertain themselves," she says.
Standing amid a swirling mass of shouting, happy kids, Sue Carroll, an instructional assistant at the school, says, "You find nature everywhere. As long as you get away from the TV and get outside. You don't have to go up on Grizzly Peak."
At Coyote Trails School of Nature in Medford, director Joe Kreuzman and his staff teach a range of outdoor survival classes and retreats designed to "pattern the mind" by exposing it to the challenges (and setbacks) of nature.
Kids immersed in nature are more stable, mentally resilient, better at stress and stay out of trouble more than indoor-directed kids, Kreuzman notes.
"It teaches you to get beyond emotional reactions of fight or flight," he says. "It helps kids realize they're not the center of the universe. It teaches self-confidence, patience, respect. It teaches you to slow down. It teaches that nature, ultimately, meets all our needs."
Asked for tips on raising nature-loving kids, Kreuzman recommends making it a game.
"Keep it fun. Get them engaged early in life," he says. "Too often we go camping with loved ones and it's with hundreds of dollars of gear, all regimented. Look at the needs of the young ones, then you'll all have fun and a sense of wonder and will want to return."
Wendy Odhner, whose kids attend workshops at Coyote Trails, says she often takes her kids out to a creek, "just to hang out and experience what's going on."
Trish Styer, who is raising two sons in a nature-loving way, echoes the theme. "We let the kids do what they love, being active, climbing rocks, hiking, beachcombing, bouncing on the trampoline. We go tubing, canoeing and floating rivers. We don't do the extreme stuff. We want the boys to love Oregon, where there's so much opportunity to do stuff with extended family."
"Just get 'em outside, away from the TV and computer and let 'em enjoy it as they want to," says Ashland nurse Beckie Elgin, who writes a blog called "Wolves and Writing."
Elgin has raised her three children with lots of exposure to nature, including some years living and working on an Indian reservation in Arizona. One is now a professional snowboarder and two will graduate soon from college, one as a nurse and one as an anthropologist with a passion for raptors — and all in love with the big outdoors.
"What I would say to parents is don't feel you have to take them way out in the wilderness," says Elgin. "You can find nature in the backyard or neighborhood parks, with easy access. Start with picnics when they're small. Just sit in the grass and look for birds.
"They learn by touching. Let them get dirty. Let them roll in it and wade in water. Let them enjoy their innate ability to connect with nature. It's so natural for them. Let them climb on rocks. Do NOT instill fear in them. Most kids know what's safe and not. They learn caution on their own terms."
The "why" of loving nature can be harder to define than the how. Sure, it's fun, but it goes deeper.
"It's physically healthier. Everyone is happier outside," says Styer. "We assume it makes them better citizens of the world. When we're in nature, it's who we are."
Speaking of her nature-friendly childhood, Becky Elgin's daughter Hannah Hartsell says, "It shaped who I am today. I have always been more comfortable away from man-made structures, and this has led me to seek experiences that put me in close touch with nature.
"I share that with my siblings. My brother and I, on a camping trip in Eastern Oregon with my mom, hiked to the bottom of Hell's Canyon and back; in one day. We knew climbing back up would be rough, but we just couldn't get enough. ...
"My exposure to nature has fostered a sense of empathy within me for the natural world, and the other animals we share it with. This is expressed in the work I do now, rehabilitating sick and injured birds of prey, and educating the public about their importance in our ecosystems."
"Once they know and love nature," Elgin says, "all their lives, it will provide them with a sense of fullness and will be a home for them to return to."