Connecting Our Children With Nature

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Nature-deficit disorder. Ever heard of it?

I hadn’t. At least, not until a few days ago.

Richard Louv, author and journalist, coined the phrase in 2005 in his book, Last Child in the Woods: Saving Our Children from Nature-Deficit Disorder.

Although the “disorder” isn’t an official diagnosis of any kind (Louv clearly acknowledges this in his book), the fact that this crisis even has a name like that is something to worry about.

And honestly, Louv might have a point. Children are spending exponentially more time in front of screens than climbing trees. In 2017, Common Sense Media conducted a survey and found that children 8 and under are spending 42 minutes a day in front of screens. That’s a big jump from 15 minutes a day in 2013, and just 5 minutes a day in 2011.

Additionally, 48% of children surveyed have their own tablet.

Let’s read that again…

NEARLY HALF of children in the United States 8 years old and under own their own tablet.

Read More: Young Children Are Spending Too Much Time In Front Of Small Screens, NPR, October 29, 2017

nature deficit disorder children to nature

Now, I’m no expert when it comes to parenting. In fact, I tend to let my daughter watch more television than I care to admit. But, I believe that at least maintaining a conscious awareness of the fact that I should limit her screen time is better than not caring at all.

There’s that at least. Right?

And as parents, we should make sure we’re more aware. After all, children these days are simply learning on a different wavelength, and I don’t mean with just screen time. In 2008, the Oxford Junior Dictionary removed 110 nature-based words and replaced them with modernized words such as MP3 player, voicemail, and broadband.

And while these words are highly beneficial to the technological world we live in, removing the natural aspects of our world from the vocabulary of our children seems like we’re going a bit too far.

So, it’s no wonder there’s such thing as the No Child Left Inside (NCLI) Coalition – an expanding network of schools, museums, zoos, and other organizations dedicated to bringing awareness and even federal funding to environmental education for children.

The effort to reconnect with nature

Led by the Chesapeake Bay Foundation, the NCLI Coalition formed in 2006 shortly after the creation of the No Child Left Behind Act of 2001. After realizing the educational strangling No Child Left Behind had on America’s kids, the NCLI Coalition began the push to include environmental education in public schools.

In 2009, the NCLI Coalition officially introduced a federal bill to the House of Representatives, with the help of representative John Sarbanes (D-MD). The bill would require state governments to develop environmental literacy plans for K-12 schools and teacher training in order to receive federal implementation grants. The House referred H.R. 2054 to the Subcommittee on Early Childhood, Elementary, and Secondary Education, where it died.

Sarbanes re-introduced similar bills in 2011, 2013, and 2015. All of these bills were again referred to the Subcommittee of Early Childhood, Elementary, and Secondary Education. These bills also died.

Where is the NCLI now?

The NCLI’s efforts turned heads. In 2015, Congress passed the Every Student Succeeds Act, replacing the No Child Left Behind Act of 2001. The law effectively rolled multiple educational issues into one bill, including the coverage of environmental education. Key points of the ESSA include:

  • STEM and “hands-on learning” activities are enhanced to provide environmental science education opportunities.
  • Environmental literacy programs are now eligible to apply for funding as part of the $1 billion 21st Century Community Learning Centers grant program. The program aims to help provide academic enrichment opportunities for children during non-school hours, with a focus on low-income areas and low-performing schools.
  • Environmental education is recognized as an enrichment activity and is now eligible for funding under a new “well-rounded education” grants program. Other items eligible for this funding include student safety programs such as bullying prevention and mental health.

The human-nature connection

It’s no secret there are benefits to the connection between nature and humans. For example, a recent study on forest bathing revealed that the practice improves your health. Following data of over 290 million participants, researchers realized the benefits of forest bathing and what nature does for the human body.

These benefits include:

  • lower cortisol levels
  • lower blood pressure
  • lower cholesterol
  • reduced risk of Type II diabetes
  • lower risk of death from heart disease
  • reduced risk of coronary artery disease
  • reduced risk of low gestational weight and preterm birth in pregnant women

But, wait a minute. What exactly is forest bathing?

I’m glad you asked…

In 1982, the Japanese Ministry of Agriculture, Forestry, and Fisheries coined the phrase Shinrin-Yoku – more commonly known as “forest bathing”. Translated more intentionally, it is defined as the act of taking in the forest atmosphere.

This therapy uses the immersive healing of nature to bring patients back to health. In 2010, a group of researchers published an article in the journal, Environmental health and preventive medicine – the official journal for the Japanese Society for Hygiene. They conducted field experiments using 280 subjects to see if the idea of forest bathing really works.

Without going into too much of the heavy stuff (you can read the whole article here), here’s what the researchers found:

The results show that forest environments promote lower concentrations of cortisol, lower pulse rate, lower blood pressure, greater parasympathetic nerve activity, and lower sympathetic nerve activity than do city environments. These results will contribute to the development of a research field dedicated to forest medicine, which may be used as a strategy for preventive medicine.

Essentially, go outside more and regain your health!

Benefits to our children

So, if techniques like forest bathing work for adults, surely they’d work for children as well?

Absolutely!

Research has shown that the simple act of getting outside and into nature has a plethora of health impacts on children. These include:

  • Improves Attention Deficit Disorder (ADD) symptoms in children
  • Reduces rates of nearsightedness
  • Improves self-discipline and reduces stress levels, especially in girls
  • Helps children develop creativity, problem-solving, and intellectual skills

And that’s just for starters! For children, playing outside is just like hitting the gym for a couple of hours. Just imagine all of the benefits that come from that.

Read More: Benefits of Connecting Children with Nature, Natural Learning Initiative, January 2012.

Ways to reconnect with nature

With today’s constant societal pressure of “do more with less time”, it seems nearly impossible to find a balance between academia and play. Kids are spending endless hours cooped up indoors, drilling information into their heads to prepare them for standardized testing. Even children as young as kindergarten are forced into our adult-focused world of curriculum and testing. But lest we forget that for kids, play is learning.

So, how do we harness the power of both?

Enter green schoolyards.

Green schoolyards, also known as living school grounds, are ecological systems built on areas surrounding more traditional school grounds. These areas are built specifically to foster the local habitat and provide a play-based learning area for the children attending school there.

Organizations such as Green Schoolyards America and the Children & Nature Network are working to plant these living school grounds in areas that need it the most; typically, they’re found in urban developments that lack a “green space” for diversified learning and exposure opportunities.

READ MORE: Check out some of the work already being done to improve learning environments using green schoolyards.

But, don’t let the learning stop there!

Outside of the classroom, families can easily find ways to reconnect themselves with the wonder of the outdoors. Here are some great ideas to get you started:

There are so many ideas and opportunities around us. Take a look in your area and find something new to explore! And the best part? Nature is free!

Who doesn’t love that?

“We do not inherit the land from our ancestors; we borrow it from our children.”

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