The research is mounting and shows that indoor lifestyles correlate with obesity, depression and anxiety, stress, attention deficit, higher use of medications, and a lack of creativity, whereas spending ample time outside in natural surroundings actually protects us against such symptoms. Were just not meant to live so cut off from what is natural.
Youd think that those of us living in Northern Michigan would have it made, as natural beauty and wild areas abound. But, for too many of us, our outside time still happens only between the house and our cars.
A LOST WAY OF LIFE
Im 44. Growing up, my generation still had built-in contact with the land and with place, with grandparents on the farm or at least a friend whose grandparents had a farm. Our dads or uncles took us fishing. It was in to visit national parks or to hang out on a beach on a hot summer day.
Even though most of my generation still grew up in cities and suburbs, we found trees to climb, frogs to catch, and built forts in undeveloped corner lots. But it wasnt long after my youth that the trend began towards preferring shopping to camping, watching movies over playing Kick the Can, and eating processed, fast foods over fresh, whole ones. These trends have only grown worse over time.
Kids today, believe it or not, spend an average (nationally) of only 19 minutes per day playing outside. If we dont include time spent in organized sports, then the average drops to six minutes per day. Instead, kids spend 6.5 hours a day with electronic media. A 2002 study found that eight-year-olds could identify 25 percent more Pokémon characters than wildlife species.
Many kids, interviewed for articles on what is now called Nature Deficit Disorder (which is by no means a medical disorder treatable with medications), said they think of the outdoors, parks, and wild places as boring. Even Scouts have changed their tune on embracing the outdoors and offer programs like tobacco prevention, science projects, self-defense, or financial literacy.
Nature is increasingly an abstraction you watch on a nature channel, said Richard Louv, author of Last Child in the Woods, an account of how children are slowly disconnecting from the natural world. That abstract relationship with nature is replacing the kinship with nature that America grew up with.
BARRIERS TO PLAY
New realities exist today that almost seem to criminalize play, according to Louv. Given the increasing population and need to manage and protect our natural resources, there are more restrictions on where you can go and what you can do.
Between a fear of liability and subdivision covenants, activities like skateboarding, building forts, and climbing trees can be forbidden.
And parents, no thanks to a media that loves to over-report the scary stuff, are reluctant to let their kids play alone outdoors. Only six percent of 9 to 13-year-olds play outside without adult supervision. The truth is that the rate of child abductions in the last 20 years has remained unchanged and even decreased in some areas. When they do occur, it is rarely by a stranger, and more likely to be someone the child knows, a family member or friend.
We dont create “natural.“ It creates us. Ponder for a moment... our indoor environment is contrived. Its controllable and predictable with its right angles, flat and smooth surfaces, square rooms, adjustable temperature, and access to all things that make us comfortable.
By comparison, the natural world is random, unpredictable, uncontrollable, and a bit chaotic. It mirrors our own inner wildness. And it stimulates us, aesthetically, sensually, emotionally, and spiritually.
Genetically, we are programmed to operate at optimal efficiency through this one-of-a-kind stimulation. And studies support this: Spontaneous time in the natural world significantly increases childrens test scores, increases their concentration and focus, ability to cooperate, and enhances their memory, motivation, self-confidence, and body-image.
KIDS TOO BUSY?
At the Great Lakes Bioneers conference last fall, I facilitated a workshop based on these trends, and taught a similar class through NMCs Extended Education Services. Both groups, mostly of adults my age or older, were shocked to hear the statistics and shared stories about their favorite memories in the out-of-doors. Im no exception; I feel like nature saved me as a kid.
But, when discussing the importance of getting our children outside today, several of the participants complained that children are already too busy, have more homework than we did, more extracurricular, and more pressure to perform. Wheres the time to be found?
Lets start with the notion that virtually every parent wants to do whats good for his or her child, says Cheryl Charles, author and president of the Children & Nature Network. Whats happened in the last 20 or so years is that parents in this society have been taught that its good to have all these enrichment programs... after-school activities, sports events, piano lessons, church groups-- timed to the minute. Theres a place for some of that, but its gotten out of balance.
GETTING BACK TO VALUES
Getting back into balance is to remember that its healthier to be outside than inside, re-awaken our own pleasure in the out-of-doors, and become aware of the values that we impart to our youth.
When our kids see us wet, cold, or dirty from being outside, they learn its okay and even fun to be messy or uncomfortable. Plant something together and watch it grow. Drag them outside to witness a full moon or some cool fluorescent green bug. Ask them why they think the moss only grows on one side of the tree. Take the family to the beach instead of to the movies or the mall.
Teachers can insist their schools continue to offer recess and environmental outdoor education. Pediatricians and other health professionals can encourage and promote the physical and mental health benefits of nature play, especially those who treat ADD, obesity, and childhood depression.
Lets take advantage of the summer and abundance of natural beauty we are graced with here. Dozens of open spaces, parks, natural areas, beaches and lakes, hiking trails, rivers to canoe and fish, and outdoor summer programs are available for the whole family.
Check out Grass River Natural Area in Antrim County. Northwings and SEE-North in Harbor Springs. Inland Seas, Suttons Bay. Shielding Tree Nature Center and Little Artshram, TC. Raven Ridge Nature Preserve, East Jordan. Grand Traverse Conservation District Discovery Hikes. Hundreds of miles of beaches. Sleeping Bear Sand Dunes. Twenty-six different land conservancy natural areas and nature preserves. And, of course, theres always your backyard. Our kids futures depend on it and so does the Earths.
Lisa Franseen, PhD is an eco-psychologist from the Grand Traverse area.