Community Voices

Beyond the Classroom: Putting nature back into childhood

When you tally the activity done within the waking hours of a child’s day today, how much of those hours are spent outdoors? Not many.

My generation spent the greater majority of our childhood outdoors. No one had anything better (or worse) to do. And when kids meet the outdoors, wondrous things happen.

Whether you lived in a Bronx apartment and played stickball, swung from tire swings in the Bayou, or frolicked in the sand and foam of the ocean waves, nature was always the great entertainer — and a superb teacher. By spending so much time outdoors, kids notice things like rainbows and how clouds move, and how bugs feel and birds sing. They notice smells, like the air before a rainstorm. And colors, like a fiery sunset.

It is difficult to expect kids to save or cherish that which they have never interacted with or don’t even know exists. Today, many kids only know about leaf shapes and life cycles from videos and the illustrations in books. But to smell dirt, watch tadpoles turn into frogs, or lose yourself in the aroma of a gardenia — a book or a video just isn’t the same.

Evolutionary Roots

Stephen Kellert, a professor emeritus at the Yale University School of Forestry and Environmental Studies, reminds us that humans evolved over hundreds of thousands of years. The great majority of that evolutionary history was in a natural environment. Because of that, we developed skills and capabilities in response to the pressures of that natural environment. We call that fitness. That fitness helped advance our success as a species and those successful adaptations to the pressures of that natural environment became biologically encoded over time.

In essence, we have a biological inclination to relate to nature. It is through nature that we formed our emotional, intellectual and physical capacities and abilities. Humans are creatures of lifelong learning, and as part of that we have an instinctive inclination to associate with nature.

Randy White, CEO of the White Hutchinson Leisure & Learning Group, and author of “Young Children’s Relationship with Nature: Its Importance to Children’s Development & the Earth’s Future,” says that throughout most of history, when children were free to play their first choice was often to flee to the nearest wild place — whether it was a big tree or brushy area in the yard or a watercourse or woodland nearby. Two hundred years ago, most children spent their days surrounded by fields, farms or in the wild nature at its edges. By the late twentieth century, many environments had become urbanized. But even then, children had access to nature and the world at large. They spent the bulk of their recreation time outdoors, using the sidewalks, streets, playgrounds, parks, greenways, vacant lots and other spaces “left over” during the urbanization process or the fields, forests, streams and yards of suburbia. Children still maintained the freedom to play, explore and interact with the natural world with little or no restriction or supervision.

Lifestyle Problem

If you ask anyone over 40 to recount their most treasured childhood play memories, few will include the indoors. Fewer still will involve being in adult company. Independent play, outdoors and far from grown-up eyes, is what we remember. Today’s children will be unlikely to treasure memories like that. A generation ago, kids on average spent more than four hours a day outside. Now it’s less than 40 minutes per week. Conversely, they spend an astounding 52 hours a week engaged in electronic media in doors, whether it be computers, television or games.

It’s a fact: today’s children are disconnected from the outdoors. Spending less time outside has been shown to be one factor that leads to problems such as attention difficulties, obesity, diminished use of the senses and disconnection from things that are real.

Sure, kids can read about coral reefs of the world on the Internet, look at the passing clouds through a window, play in an indoor sandbox, or water a potted plant but it isn’t the same as being outside. There has to be a balance.

Author Richard Louv coined the term “Nature-Deficit Disorder” in his book “Last Child in the Woods: Saving Our Children from Nature-Deficit Disorder.” He laments about the profound negative change that has occurred to children’s relationship with nature over the past few decades. He relates this recent demise of physical boundaries to several factors:

▪ Technology. In a recent report from the Kaiser Family Foundation, it was found that the average 8- to 18-year-old American now spends more than 53 hours a week “using entertainment media.”

▪ Time Pressure. Children are much more pressured than ever before. Every minute counts and spare time must be spent constructively — there is simply no time for playing outdoors. Where kids of yesterday climbed trees, built forts, collected lizards and dragonflies, today’s kids aren’t even allowed to get dirty.

▪ Culture Fear / Stranger Danger. Some of the biggest obstacles to today’s children being allowed outdoors stem more from anxiety. The fear of getting hurt and the fear of unknown. The fear of abduction is what keeps most parents from letting their kids out unsupervised. Despite the hype of the few such incidents, the risk remains minimal — especially when kids are in groups.

▪ Other parents keep their kids indoors. Without other kids outside, there is no one to play with and no one wants to play alone.

▪ Fear of UV radiation, skin cancer, insect-borne diseases or pollution.

This nature disconnect is a problem that requires urgent attention. A childhood of unsupervised loitering, wandering and exploring has been replaced by a childhood of adult supervised and scheduled improvements. And the consequences of failing to allow our children to play independently outside? They have already started to make themselves noticed.

Staying inside: Impact on Physical and Emotional Health

Obesity and Type 2 diabetes due to sedentary preferences and fast food consumption are perhaps the most visible physical symptom of the lack of outdoor play. The return of rickets is another. Myopia, or nearsightedness is also correlated with watching TV and electronic device use.

Around the world, children are less aerobically fit than their parents were as kids. Not only do most kids take 90 seconds longer to run a mile than kids did 30 years ago, they are much less likely to walk, bike or skate to school than they were in the 1970s. Neighborhoods are increasingly suburban and people are driving more. The number of global households with TVs, DVDs, computers, Internet access and video games has soared.

Physical health is not the only parameter impacted by an indoor, sedentary lifestyle. Valerie Strauss in the Washington Post article “Why So Many Kids Can’t Sit Still in School Today,” says that the CDC reported a spike in the percentage of attention deficit and hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) diagnoses in children. While the reasons are multiple (awareness, diagnostic criteria, etc), another reason has been proposed — the amount of time kids are being forced to sit while in school.

She says you don’t see children rolling down hills, climbing trees and spinning in circles just for fun. Merry-go-rounds and see-saws have vanished from playgrounds. Recess times have shortened due to increasing educational demands and testing, and children rarely play outdoors due to parental fears, liability issues, and the hectic schedules of modern-day society. Children are not nearly moving enough.

Restricted movement has resulted in many children walking around with an underdeveloped vestibular (balance) system. Children need to move in all directions for hours at a time in order to develop a strong balance system. Ask any teacher, children are going to class with bodies that are less prepared to learn than ever before.

When asked to sit and pay attention, kids naturally start fidgeting in order to get the movement their body so desperately needs to “turn their brain on.” And what happens when kids fidget in class? Teachers tell them to sit still and pay attention, and their brains go back to sleep.

We need to understand that fidgeting is a strong indicator that children are not getting enough movement throughout the day. Dozens of studies from around the world show regular, unstructured outdoor play time produces significant improvements in attention deficit hyperactivity disorder, boosts psychological and emotional well being, and promotes problem-solving skills, focus and self discipline. Socially, it improves cooperation, flexibility and self-awareness.

Laurie Futterman ARNP is a former Heart Transplant Coordinator at Jackson Memorial Medical Center. She now chairs the science department and teaches gifted middle school science at David Lawrence Jr. K-8 Center. She has three children and lives in North Miami.