No Child Left Inside

(illustration by Stephen Webster)

In the past week or two I've been working with my colleagues to develop some innovative programming for the students we support. I work in the field of education and our campus is 29 acres. This 29 acres is the single-most underused asset at our disposal. My goal is to broaden the idea of "classroom' to extend beyond the traditional bricks-and-mortar learning environment to include outdoor classrooms and nature-based learning experiences.

Nature deficit disorder - a term coined by Richard Louv in his 2005 book called Last Child in the Woods -  refers to the growing trend that children are spending less time outdoors, resulting in a wide range of behavioral, learning and health problems. Louv claims that causes for the phenomenon include parental fears, restricted access to natural areas, and the lure of the screen.

Growing up, I spent a great deal of my time outdoors. Whether I was in the city or in the country. Afternoons and weekends were spent exploring the neighborhood and surrounding communities on bike or hanging out in this expansive park that was only 1/2 block from my house. We'd sometimes be gone all day. When at my grandparents' house in the country we'd spend countless hours in the woods, fashioning forts and following fire breaks along the perimeter of the property. Some of the best memories of my childhood are of scaling large magnolia trees so that we could "ride" in the treetops as the wind blew.

Children in this day and age don't have these kinds of opportunities any longer - whether parents fear letting their children out of eyesight or neighborhoods no longer offer safe wooded areas or outdoor areas or simply because the lure of the TV, computer and handheld games is too great. Children are spending more time plugged into technology and disconnected from the outdoors.  Recent studies show that children spend an average of 30-40 PER WEEK in front of a screen (TV, computer, handheld devices). Studies have shown that more and more kids are participating in sedentary activities indoors - resulting in increases in childhood obesity, decreases in attention span, increases in behavior problems and depression, etc.

Organizations like the National Wildlife Federation have begun initiatives to help families and schools get children outdoors more. One such program is called "Green Hour" - a program that urges families to provide their children with an hour each day of outside time. The website offers families tips on how to build in this time outdoors in spite of their often overscheduled, hectic days. Congress is beginning to recognize the need to have children reconnect with nature and is working on the "No Child Left Inside" Act. This Act would support environmental education and initiatives in an effort to help children reconnect to the outdoors.

So, TBA readers, how much time do you spend outdoors? How much time do your children spend outdoors? I challenge you to build in a "Green Hour" into your schedules. Reconnect with nature. Show children today that "Time Out" is not necessarily a bad thing.

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