If you grew up several decades ago, it is likely that you can recall your weekends or after-school hours spent playing outdoors. Your parents left it up to you to entertain yourself, whether that be playing hockey in the street with the neighborhood kids or climbing trees with your brother or sister in the woods behind your house. For most of you, those times spent outdoors are fond memories, however it may seem second nature or almost instinctual that you do not expect or encourage your own children to engage in the same activities as you once did.
It is no secret that the children of today spend a great deal of time indoors. Electronic immersion, indoor confinement, and structured activities have become a social norm. Children are expected to spend several hours inside the classroom, complete their homework, and enjoy their leisure time watching television, playing video games, or participating in organized sports. What is more surprising, however, is the degree of disparity in time spent in nature between generations.
Several recent studies point out the decline in time spent in nature and in unstructured outdoor play by today’s children. A study conducted by the UCLA Center on Everyday Lives of Families found that American children spend almost no time in their own yards. Visits to national parks have decreased by over 20% since 1988, according to a study published in the Journal of Environmental Management. A University of Maryland study found a 50% decline from 1997 to 2003 in the proportion of children ages nine to twelve who spent time in outdoor activities including hiking, walking, gardening, fishing, or playing at the beach. With all that being said, American children spend on average seven hours and thirty-eight minutes a day with electronic media, according to a study by the Kaiser Family Foundation.
We have become an increasingly sedentary society, and this is perpetuated by the habits that have been instilled upon our children. That is not to say that nothing is being done to combat the trend. The ill effects of a sedentary lifestyle, including obesity and various other health problems, have been increasingly publicized and brought to our attention. A large proportion of American parents are wary of the risks of the couch potato lifestyle, and enroll their children in sports teams, dance classes, or other types of organized physical activities.
If we have participation in athletics to combat increasing childhood obesity, why do we need play in nature? It may seem as if structured exercise is sufficient, however there is growing evidence that children, as well as adults, need contact with nature to promote and maintain their mental and physical health. The term “nature-deficit disorder” coined by Richard Louv, author of the bestseller Last Child in the Woods, attributes a host of problems including the rise in obesity, attention deficit disorder (ADD), and depression in children to a lack of time spent in nature. Several scientists believe humans to have an innate affinity for the natural world and a need to connect with it. When this need is not met, many psychological and physical problems can arise. Louv believes that daily electronic immersion, without anything to balance it, can impair a person’s ability to think clearly, pay attention, and be productive and creative.
Throughout the past decade, scientists have begun to study the impact of nature on child development. Findings point to several benefits of time spent in nature, including a reduction in ADD symptoms, improved psychological wellbeing, therapeutic effects, and even improved academic performance. Despite this growing evidence, modern society continues to make it very difficult for children to spend sufficient time in nature. Parents’ busy schedules, increasing transportation costs, and the need to save money often cause families to renounce outdoor excursions. Schools, facing increasing pressure to achieve high standardized test scores among students, spend more time focusing on math and reading, and often forego activities such as outdoor education. School administrators in some states report that field trips are virtually fading away. When asked about the reasons for this decline, administrators listed lack of funding, high fuel costs, a hesitation to take large groups of children into public places, and the pressure to achieve high scores on standardized tests. They felt that time could be used more wisely inside the classroom than out. Ironically, findings from a report by the National Wildlife Federation have illustrated how time spent outdoors both at home and at school help children achieve higher standardized test scores.
Depending on the location and academic philosophy of a school, its students may or may not be participating in sufficient outdoor education. With the current state of the economy, many schools have put outdoor education on the back burner. Fortunately, extra-curricular organizations work to help supplement outdoor and environmental education in schools. Over the past three years, Havasi Wilderness Foundation, an Agoura Hills based nonprofit, has been funding field trips to state and national parks as well as other natural history destinations. Motivated by its mission of protecting and preserving natural ecosystems through education and awareness, the foundation encourages schools and other organizations to apply for grants to fund outdoor education field trips.
Havasi Wilderness Foundation has helped to fund the Resource Conservation District of the Santa Monica Mountains’ education program for the past three years. This program, led by professional environmental educators, brings school groups to Topanga State Park and Topanga Beach, where children participate in a variety of educational and stimulating activities focusing on the environment, local wildlife, and the history of the Chumash people who historically inhabited the area. In 2010 the foundation funded an EARTHS Magnet School field trip to Leo Carillo State Beach. In 2009, its first active year, Havasi Wilderness Foundation funded a program allowing students in Northern California to visit Fort Ross State Historic Park and attend many of its programs, and helped to fund the National Association for Interpretation’s educational summer camp program. These programs have been highly successful, with many students expressing how much they enjoyed and appreciated the school time spent in nature. Havasi Wilderness Foundation strives to continue funding these programs and to extend these valuable opportunities to a larger number of schools.
Coyle, K.J. 2010. Back to School: Back Outside! How Outdoor Education and Outdoor School Time Create High Performance Students. National Wildlife Federation. http://www.nwf.org/News-and-Magazines/Media- Center/Reports/Archive/2010/Back-to-School.aspx. Accessed 7/5/12.
Louv, R. 2008. Last Child in the Woods: Saving Our Children from Nature-Deficit Disorder. Algonquin Books of Chapel Hill. Chapel Hill, North Carolina.
Pergams, O.R.W., and Zaradic, P.A. 2006. Is love of nature in the US becoming love of electronic media? 16-year downtrend in national parks visits explained by watching movies, playing video games, internet use, and oil prices. Journal of Environmental Management 80: pp 387-393.
Polochanin, D. 2008. The Disappearing Field Trip. Education Week. http://www.edweek.org/ew/articles/2008/03/26/29polochanin.h27.html. Accessed 7/5/12.
Shapley, D. 2010. Kids Spend Nearly 55 Hours a Week Watching TV, Texting, Playing Video Games. The Daily Green. http://www.thedailygreen.com/environmental-news/latest/kids-television- 47102701. Accessed 7/5/12.
Sullivan, M. 2012. Trouble in Paradise: UCLA Book enumerates challenges faced by middle-class L.A. families. UCLA Newsroom. http://newsroom.ucla.edu/portal/ucla/trouble-in-paradise-new-ucla-book.aspx. Accessed 7/2/12.