Remember being a kid and turning over a rock in the woods? Underneath you’d find earthworms and roly-polies—sometimes even a snake. You’d run down the street and find the neighbor kids and, together, you would climb a tree, then go down to the creek to catch tadpoles. By dinnertime, you would have been out for hours. You’d finally come home sporting grass stains on your knees and mud on your shoes. Your day’s adventures would supply you with stories of all the neat things that you’d seen—perfect dinnertime conversation, as far as you were concerned (even if your mom thought the one about the vultures you saw eating the dead deer carcass was inappropriate to discuss at the table).
Now compare that experience—considered by most people who remember their own version of this story to be a crucial part of their childhood—with the kid who spends 44 hours a week, the current national average, plugged into some kind of electronic medium. The latter spends hours upon hours indoors, on a computer, in front of a television and focused on a screen. If he isn’t listening to his iPod, he’s usually playing a video game and the last time he was outside was when he walked between the car and the house after coming home from the movies.
Experts are worried about this kid—and not just because he spends so much time in front of a screen.
“The other question,” says Richard Louv, “is what are they not doing when they are in front of the television? If they’re not outside, if they’re not experiencing nature, they’re not using all of their senses at the same time.”
Louv, author of the national bestseller Last Child in the Woods: Saving our Children from Nature-Deficit Disorder and the founder of a movement that aims to get kids back outside and into the natural world, explains that using all of your senses at the same time—something inherent to exploring the natural world—is the definition of the optimum state of learning. And outdoor exploration doesn’t just help kids learn better. Studies show that playing in nature has a huge impact on a kid’s physical health, stress reduction, attention span and general well-being.
But despite all the benefits that outdoor play offers, more and more kids are spending their time inside instead of out. In fact, according to a recent report put out by the National Wildlife Federation, children are spending half as much time outside as they did 20 years ago.
Such alarming statistics have prompted the state to host its first Montana Children and Nature Summit in Helena on Tuesday, Sept. 23. The one-day meeting aims to raise awareness of the problem and, with the input of recreation resource managers, health care professionals, educators and industry representatives, develop strategies to reconnect youth to Montana’s outdoors.
“Even though Montana is a rural state and very beautiful and you’d think we’d have no problem getting kids outdoors, we have the same problems every other state does,” says Arnie Olsen, executive director of the Montana Natural History Center (MNHC) in Missoula, and a member of the summit’s steering committee. “This is a way for Montana, from east to west, to get together, talk about the problem, identify the barriers and the solutions. It’s really going to take a joint effort from everyone—kids, parents, teachers, administrators and the various organizations—to solve the problem.”
One easy excuse for the emergence of nature-deficit disorder is technology. But Louv cautions against pointing the finger solely at Nintendo, Microsoft, Sony or Apple.
“Technology is part of this—the proliferation of video games and computers and iPhones and iPods are everywhere in our lives. But the truth is, prior generations experienced waves of incoming technology that were novel and interesting,” says Louv. “Color television, in my memory, was a big deal—and it may have kept a few of us in a little bit longer during the week to watch ‘Bonanza’ in color, but then we ran outside and we played ‘Bonanza.’”
Louv suggests the reasons children don’t play outside as often are actually much broader and deeper.
“I think it’s probably too easy to blame it on computers and video games,” he says. “It’s kind of like video games are the new rock and roll—the reason for all our sins. Obviously, electronics are part of it, but I think if we focus too much on blaming video games, for instance, two things will happen. One is, we’ll drive kids even more into spending more time on video games. The second thing is, the more we focus on electronics, the less we’ll focus on the other reasons that I think actually are deeper reasons.”
One of them, Louv explains, is the over-structuring of modern childhood. In contrast to the days when moms would utter the phrase “go out and play” and a kid would play outside without constant supervision or specific goals, children today are rushed from school to violin practice to a soccer game—each moment of a kid’s day planned out and scheduled, supervised and structured.
“That is a major issue here—the sense of anxiety that our kids will fall behind if they’re not overloaded with structured activity,” he says.
And while organized sports and other activities can be great for kids in moderation, studies have shown that it’s the unstructured exploratory play in nature that offers benefits like reduced stress and increased learning.
“Their lives are very structured nowadays and we like to slow down a little bit and let them look and observe under an experienced teacher or naturalist,” says Olsen. “We want them to experience nature—hear the sounds, see the sights and feel it and smell it. Kids really get into it, particularly with live animals. They’re, all of a sudden, very focused.”
Instead of exploring the natural world with all their senses, kids are watching television shows about nature or learning about habitats that exist in faraway places.
“What we want them to have is the experience of just being out there—of just mucking around, of digging a hole, of climbing a tree, of building a fort, of finding a bug—all of those great things that are experiential. The experience is what counts far more than the information,” says Louv. “They’re getting lots of information about nature—most of it has nothing to do with their particular region. It has to do with the Amazon rainforest or something far away. They have Animal Planet. What they don’t have is the hands-dirty, feet-wet experience of just having fun in nature. And that is elemental.”
While kids across America are experiencing a lack of this outdoor exploration, in the West, where there are open spaces available and an atmosphere that seems to encourage being involved in outdoor activities, one may wonder how many kids are really affected by nature-deficit disorder.
“Oh, absolutely and positively [we see it],” says Jill Dreves, founder and executive director of the Wild Bear Nature Discovery Center in Colorado. “The biggest premise to this whole movement that Richard Louv has made is the unstructured play in the woods. We just are fearful. Look at the fear base around the mountain lions and around the bears and around the bees. We’re fortunate to live in a county that has this great perspective to pass taxes to preserve land—and thank God for that—but still we have this deficit of unstructured play in the woods. We’re afraid of the bogeyman, and there’s a lot of fear.”
And parental fear, says Louv, is the even deeper reason that kids aren’t getting the experience with nature that their parents had.
“[Parents] are scared to death—mainly of stranger danger,” he says. “The irony is that when you look at the actual statistics on stranger abduction, they’re extremely small compared to what we believe they are. The number of violent crimes against children has been going down. There’s a Duke University study that shows that it’s now at the mid-1970s level. After going up for quite a while, it just started dropping for the last 20 years. And if that’s true, then why is our perception of crime skyrocketing?”
He blames the 24-hour news cycle for that one. A few local cases of terrible crimes against children get blown up into national news, then repeated over and over again.
“That’s the very definition of conditioning,” he says. “We are being conditioned to live in a state of fear and that is dramatically changing our lives.”
Jennelle Freeston, an interpretive naturalist for the city of Boulder open space and mountain parks program, cites a study in which researchers interviewed 800 moms across the country.
“Safety was right up there as almost their number one concern of why they don’t let their kids outside playing unstructured,” Freeston says.
The paradox is that to provide children with more unstructured outdoor playtime, adults are going to have to structure it.
“We’re just going to have to do that with a sense of humor and work out new ways to do it,” Louv says. “And there are people—outdoor educators and nature centers—that are working out techniques to give kids a sense of solitude and stand back and not hover over them. What we don’t want is to take kids out in the woods and then hover over them with nature flashcards.”
Olsen’s childhood, for instance, allowed for plenty of unstructured play.
“When I was a kid we grew up on a dairy farm and I never even thought about playing inside,” he says. “I didn’t have a computer or any of the things that draw kids inside now. I had a connection in nature, and I think a lot of the concern now is that, literally, kids never get outside.
The MNHC leads multiple programs aimed directly at solving the problem. Most notably, their Visiting Naturalist in the Schools Program, which helps Missoula County Public Schools meet state and county curriculum standards, sends experts to fourth and fifth grade classes seven times a year. While some visits include field trips to local sites, most are conducted right on school grounds.
“We have some beautiful areas in the Missoula area and that’s to our advantage,” says Olsen. “We can take kids out to the river or to forest land, but, in reality, even in their own schoolyard, it’s amazing what you can find. It’s a matter of discovery.”
That simple aspect of just getting outdoors is being touted across the country now.
“I think you can experience nature anywhere you are,” Dreves says. “Getting out there to camp—set your tent up somewhere. Set the tent up in the backyard. Sit outside at night and check out the sky. Listen to the sounds. What’s out there? A whole new world exists. You can do that anywhere.”
Louv says that with gas prices increasing, an emphasis on “nearby nature” is going to be as important as wilderness experiences.
“Not everybody has the luxury of having the woods in their backyard,” says Dreves. “So I think it’s also about investigating the crack in your sidewalk and not always needing to kill the spider that’s crawling on the wall. It’s allowing kids to bring the dirt inside every so often and not to be so sanitized all the time. It’s the regard for other life besides ourselves and understanding that we are connected to it.”
Olsen thinks the ideas are working, and notes how demand for MNHC programs has spiked. Specifically, the Visiting Naturalist in the Schools Program expanded from 29 to 43 classes this year, and summer science camps experienced waiting lists for the first time. Olsen attributes the rise in part to MNHC’s move from Fort Missoula to downtown, but also to a general increase in awareness of nature-deficit disorder.
“I think part of that is because parents are looking at this going, ‘What can I do?’ If there’s an opportunity to have their child engaged in something like this,” he says, “a lot of parents want it to happen for the health of the child.”
And Louv says that’s important, not only because of the inherent benefits that we see in kids who are exposed to nature, but also because studies of environmentalists and conservationists show that, almost across the board, they had some sort of transcendent experience in nature when they were kids.
“Where will the future stewards of the earth come from?” asks Louv. “That depends not so much on the information about global warming. It depends on the experience of [today’s kids] just having joy in nature. Literally, this is about the health of future generations and our children. This is also about the health of the earth.”
Montana Fish, Wild-life and Parks, Montana Recreation and Parks Association and Montana Natural History Center, among others, host the first Montana Children and Nature Summit Tuesday, Sept. 23, at
the Great Northern Hotel in Helena. Register online at www.mtrpa.info/
This story originally appeared in Boulder Weekly. Additional Missoula reporting by Skylar Browning.