When I was in 6th grade I attended Outdoor School in Portland, Oregon. I remember this week as a glorious one because our classroom was the outdoors and nature…not an enclosed classroom. We were divided into groups, assigned cabins and camp counselors and we spent a week learning about ecosystems, animals, geology and plants. I remember understanding many of these concepts for the first time because I was learning by using all of my senses. I could touch, smell, see and hear everything my teachers had taught me.
My sister is a special education teacher in Oregon and she just attended Outdoor School with her students this past spring. She related to me a story about one of her students with cerebral palsy who just thrived at Outdoor School. My sister was worried about keeping this particular student warm, but the student was too busy learning, meeting new people and simply having a blast that she forgot she was cold. She learned more in a week than she had during months in the classroom!
While attending the National Afterschool Association Convention in Orlando this past April, I heard a very inspiring speaker named Richard Louv that helped my understand why learning and playing outside can be so beneficial. He is a well known national speaker and author who has coined the phrase Nature Deficit Disorder and has written several books that express the importance of reconnecting children with nature. Mr. Louv has also founded the Children & Nature Network, which is an organization dedicated to reasearch involving reconnecting children to nature.
Over the years his extensive research suggests that
“…children are spending less time outdoors, resulting in a wide range of behavioral problems…Louv claims that causes for the phenomenon include parental fears, restricted access to natural areas, and the lure of the screen. Recent research has drawn a further contrast between the declining number of National Park visits in the United States and increasing consumption of electronic media by children.” (Wikipedia)
Causes of Nature Deficit Disorder
Parents keeping children indoors in order to keep them safe from danger. Richard Louv believes we may be protecting children to such an extent that it has become a problem and disrupts the child’s ability to connect to nature. The parent’s growing fear of “stranger danger” that is heavily fueled by the media, keeps children indoors and on the computer rather than outdoors exploring. Louv believes this may be the leading cause in nature deficit disorder, as parents have a large amount of control and influence in their children’s lives.
- Loss of natural surroundings in a child’s neighborhood and city. Many parks and nature preserves have restricted access and “do not walk off the trail” signs. Environmentalists and educators add to the restriction telling children “look don’t touch”. While they are protecting the natural environment Louv questions the cost of that protection on our children’s relationship with nature.
- Increased draw to spend more time inside. With the advent of the computer, video games and television children havemore reasons to stay inside, “The average American child spends 44 hours a week with electronic media.” (Wikipedia)
Take Home Message
Some of the take-home messages I got from Mr. Louv’s address include:
- Nature is a gift and we are innately attracted to it.
- Children are more successful in school when they’re learning is experiential and outside in nature.
- The most valuable science lessons are learned outside.
- Mr. Louv has seen a decrease in ADD symptoms in children who are outside more often.
- Children are more creative when they can play in natural green spaces, rather than constructed playgrounds. Studies show that these children do better in school as well.
- There are positive benefits on brain development of children who are exposed to the outdoors and nature.
Preventing Nature Deficit Disorder
So what can be done to prevent Nature Deficit Disorder? Parents and teachers can take action now to bring more nature into young people’s lives. Here are some tips from a public radio and television channel, KQED in Northern California:
- Take children down to the creek to skip rocks and then show them what was hiding under those rocks.
- Take a walk after the rain and count worms.
- Turn on the porch light and watch the insects gather.
- Encourage your child to get to know a 10-square-yard area at the edge of a field, pond or pesticide-free garden. Look for the edges between habitats: where the trees stop and a field begins, where rocks and earth meet water. Life is always at the edges.
- With your child, keep a nature journal where you describe, in words and pictures, the animals and plants you see.
- Introduce your kids to gardening. Vegetables are a good choice because they germinate quickly and can be eaten when mature.
- Encourage children (especially girls) to study or play in rooms with a view of nature.
- Encourage children to play outdoors in green spaces, and advocate recess in green school yards. This may be especially helpful for renewing children’s concentration.
Salt Lake County Resources
Youth Services is running a summer camp for teens and many of them have never been to the canyons or hiking on any of the trails. Because of this, we try to expose the teens to different kinds of nature including hikes, ropes courses and parks. We believe it’s extremely important to get the kids outside as much as possible.
We have so many great places in the Salt Lake Valley where children can play and learn outside including: Red Butte Gardens, Tracy Aviary, County Parks, Millcreek Canyon, Big and Little Cottonwood Canyon, the Bonneville Shoreline Trail, the Jordan River Parkway….just to name a few.
How do you plan to get your kids outside more? Just remember that safety always comes first and to plan ahead before going on your summer adventures.