Nature Unplugged: Can Today’s Kids Get Enough Time Outside?

These days most adult-types under the age of, well, 100 find themselves more frequently communing with computers than with Mama Earth. But unlike the many of us who grew up running around outside all day, today’s kids are less connected to the environment than ever.

Yes, in a schedule packed with piano lessons, soccer practices, and quantum physics training at age eight, the once timeless command to “go outside and play” has become antiquated. Childhood rites like exploring and getting dirty, climbing trees, playing tag, or catching fireflies can all be enjoyed digitally, after all…right?

We turned to experts to find out why access to nature matters—and what’s keeping kids from getting it. Is it limited proximity to green spaces? Are Smurfs’ Village and Angry Birds scaring kids out of the woods? Or are cubicle-tied, car-bound parents, obsessed with breeding super-achievers to blame?

“There’s not one factor, but rather a vicious cycle,” says Emilian Geczi, MS, youth and community engagement coordinator for Chicago Wilderness, a leader in the effort to connect local kids with nature. “There are many self-reinforcing cultural and societal factors contributing to keeping kids away from nature. It’s either too much time in front of a computer screen or an increase in structured sports, like soccer and baseball, or the whole belief that danger lurks outdoors. They all play a role.”

Kids getting hands-on in nature with Chicago Wilderness.
Exploring nature with kids is good clean fun…with a little less clean and a lot more fun. (Photo by Emilian Geczi/Chicago Wilderness)

Most parents recognize kids get a lot of screen time these days—but may still be surprised to learn that the average young American now spends close to eight hours a day using a smart phone, computer, television, or electronic device, according to a 2010 Kaiser Family Foundation study.

It can be a little unsettling to step back and realize just how unplugged the typical American child is to nature. The disconnection bodes ill, Geczi and other experts say, both for children and for nature. That’s because there is mounting evidence that access to nature has clear social, emotional, and physical benefits for children of all ages. He points to myriad studies done by the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign that underscore why kids (and adults too) need a daily dose of nature. One study suggests that natural settings and “green” outdoor activities reduced ADHD symptoms more than activities in other settings.

“Being outside has tangible benefits for kids, but it is also the number one factor that determines that kids will later become environmental stewards,” he says. For these reasons and more, he says it’s crucial that society shifts its attitude and put more stock in the fact that nature should be a top priority in life.

Restoring Childhood to Unplugged Outdoor Play

The good news is there are a growing number of organizations armed by folk like Geczi who are passionate about connecting kids with nature and its wild things. They know that there is a particular joy for children encountering the natural world on their own terms, and are determined that it won’t become a lost rite of childhood.

Geczi coordinates the Chicago Wilderness (CW) Leave No Child Inside Initiative, which encourages families to spend more time outside. In fact, June 2013 is Leave No Child Inside Month. Throughout June, the organization and its partners have organized large collaborative events and individual programs to promote the CW Children’s Outdoor Bill of Rights, which stands firm in the belief that kids need access to nature. This year, the group’s goal is to engage more than 15,000 children and adults.

What’s driving this initiative is the basic premise that kids need the freedom to find their ecological niche, explains Geczi. “We’ve listed 10 simple activities that kids just don’t seem to have the chance to do anymore, but should have the right to. Watching your kid climb a tree, or plant flowers, camp under the stars, or play in the mud. These are activities that make nature fun and we’re encouraging families to create a checklist and try some of them out.”

A major mover and shaker in the movement to get kids outside is the National Wildlife Federation, which runs Eco-Schools USA, an internationally acclaimed program that helps educators steer students into the woods by integrating sustainable principles throughout their schools, curriculums, and into their local communities.

“Getting kids outside the classroom is important. We try to apply what they’ve learned in school to help them make a difference in their communities and to connect to nature so they can value their natural world,” says Elizabeth Soper, MS, associate director of Eco-Schools USA.

With this focus on environmental stewardship, the Eco-Schools program is in 2,400 schools in the U.S. and in 51 countries globally, with more than 37,000 K-12 students participating. “Our goal is to move from awareness of the environment, to helping students become better stewards of the environment,” says Soper.

Forget “Look, Don’t Touch”

One of the obstacles in giving kids access to nature is the “look, don’t touch” museum mentality, notes Geczi. “Nature shouldn’t be an exhibit that kids can’t touch. Kids need to play and explore and use their imaginations with nature. The process has to be fun; it needs to nurture their sense of awe and curiosity.”

He’s not alone in this recommendation. “The most important thing a parent can do is encourage their children to play outdoors,” urges Lesley Kolaya, Children’s Garden supervisor at the Morton Arboretum in Lisle, Illinois. “By playing outside, children will have the opportunity to explore what lives in their backyards or local park, and through exploration, they will begin to learn more about their environment.”

Good hands-on times in nature at Eco-School Lanier Middle School in Houston, Texas. (Photo by NWF/Eco-Schools USA)
Good hands-on times in nature at Eco-School Lanier Middle School in Fairfax, Virginia. (Photo by NWF/Eco-Schools USA)

Part of providing access to nature for kids–and getting them to unplug from the Internet—is to point parents and kids not only to parks and preserves on their own time, but to encourage their local schools to register as an Eco-School.

With Eco-Schools, holding class in the dappled sunlight under the trees is not only likely, it is encouraged. Getting kids outside helps them to be more confident and calm, and even improves their academic performance, explains Soper. They get in touch with themselves—while getting in touch with nature. Plus, students gain confidence and pride by playing a hands-on role in greening up their school by learning how to create rooftop gardens and wildlife habitat. A win-win for kids and nature alike.

Leave It to the Imagination

Too often, city parents assume getting their kids into nature means getting them in a car. But the excuse that nature isn’t accessible in urban areas is just that, says Geczi. Nature is right outside your door—“if you look, or if young people are encouraged to do so by their teachers and parents,” he adds. “Even in patch of grass or a tree, or an abandoned plot you can find nature, you just need to explore closer.

“Young kids love to collect things and bring them home, so on a walk to school or the store, pick up the ‘treasures,’ collect leaves, or rocks and talk about the cool things in nature you find along the way,” he adds. “Or stroll the block and listen to the birds. The most important thing is that you help kids make an emotional connection to nature.”

EcoMyth Outcome: Myth Busted

Children do have real access to nature; they just need adults to help connect them. As Geczi puts it, “Children need role models to help emotionally connect them to nature. Parents, grandparents, or teachers can offer the opportunity to share with children activities they like doing like fishing, or walking in the woods, or collecting seashells at the beach.” By doing so, we can help today’s kids discover their own connection with nature, too.

One Green Thing You Can Do

Choose a nature activity that you loved as a child—think catching fireflies, making mud pies, collecting leaves—then share it with a little one today.

More ways to help:

  • Read the CW Children’s Outdoor Bill of Rights with your kids and pick the outdoor resolution that best suits your family. We like their recommendation to discover nature by finding and watching small animals and insects—an activity that’s possible virtually anywhere.
  • Score big time eco-brownie points by encouraging your local school to sign up as an Eco-School.
  • Become a member at a local nonprofit institution that helps kids get outside, such as a botanic garden, arboretum, or wildlife sanctuary.

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