– a 3-year old perplexed by a photograph of a forest
“I like to play indoors better, ’cause that’s where all the electric outlets are.”
– a fourth grader quoted in Richard Louv’s “Last Child in the Woods.”
“We don’t spend much time outside.” “It’s too hot – and when it’s not, it’s rainy.” “I could get Zika.” “I don’t have time.”
– college students explaining their lack of interaction with nature
Decades of research show that children – and adults – need contact with nature. As Pope Francis counseled: “We were not meant to be inundated by cement, asphalt, glass and metal, and deprived of physical contact with nature.”
Time in nature benefits us – physically, intellectually, and psychologically:
Time in nature helps reduce stress and restore inner peace.
Nature stimulates cognitive learning – it stirs curiosity, focuses attention, encourages reflection, and invites response.
Nature engages our senses. It nurtures creativity, sparks imagination, and poses esteem-building challenges – to ford a stream, climb a tree, mount a boulder.
And for young children, play in a natural setting lays the foundation for middle and upper school science.
Yet today’s children have far less opportunity than their grandparents to explore the woods in solitude, listen to the sound of wind rustling trees, spend an afternoon watching clouds cross the sky, study the stars, or get to know the wild plants and animals in their neighborhoods.
A host of cultural changes now combine to limit a child’s opportunities to experience the joy and wonder of nature. Technology has changed. More mesmerizing TVs and more irresistible electronic toys and gadgets now lure us indoors.
Neighborhoods have changed. In 1969, almost half of U.S. children walked or biked to school; now fewer than 20% do. In 1920, nearly 30% of Americans lived on farms; today, less than 2% do, while over 80% live in urban areas. There, backyards are smaller or nonexistent. Natural parkland may not lie within walking distance. Fear of traffic and crime inhibits willingness to let children roam.
Schools have changed. Quest for “test score success” pressures elementary schools to decrease recess time, increase homework, extend the school day or year, and limit outdoor field trips (which also suffer from shrinking public budgets). High schoolers, increasingly anxious about college, concentrate on resume-enhancing activities. Organized sports offer fresh air, exercise, and potential athletic success, but limited, if any, interaction with nature.
And we adults have changed. Parents and teachers raised with little contact with nature often feel unprepared to lead youngsters outdoors. Even adventurous adults struggle with the pace of modern living – its long working hours, tedious commutes, and near constant job-related electronic communication. Engaging with nature becomes “one more thing” on an already overly long “to do” list.
As our connection to nature shrinks, we miss the steadily accumulating evidence of climate change – until a severe storm, drought or wildfire forcibly, if momentarily, grabs our attention. But we quickly tune out and try not to think about alarming environmental news. We attach less importance to environmental loss; we wall ourselves off from a sense of urgency. We mistakenly assume climate change endangers someplace or someone else, not our family or home. And, unmoored from nature, we are less able to prepare children to be good environmental stewards.
So how do we restore balance to our children’s lives? After interviewing nearly 3,000 parents and children about this subject, author Richard Louv concludes: “The most effective way to connect our children to nature is to connect ourselves to nature….Kids have to feel this connection [to nature] is vital and deep” in adults.
Here’s one way to nurture and share that connection. Our free online “Nature SmART Kids” program makes connecting with nature easy – and fun – for both adults and children! We’ve created a list of 10 simple outdoor activities for children and easy, conversation-starting questions to help parents, teachers, and caregivers spark a child’s natural curiosity and reflection. You can set your own goals, tailoring involvement to fit you and your child’s needs. And artist-created “reward” certificates help you and your child mark – and celebrate – your accomplishment together. Enjoy!