On the Air: Helping Kids Experience (Their) True Nature

Students at Round School Elementary -- an Eco-School in Virginia -- enjoy some valuable time outside.
Students at Round School Elementary — an Eco-School in Virginia — enjoy some valuable time outside. (Photo via NWF/Eco-Schools USA)

It’s hard to believe but true: The average American kid spends an average of 7 1/2 hours per day using entertainment media on an computer, cell phone, TV, or other electronic device, according to a recent study by the Kaiser Family Foundation. This is 53 hours per week—more than a full-time job! Much of the rest of the time they are in school. So when do they have time to experience nature?

On our latest EcoMyths segment on Worldview, host Jerome McDonnell and I explored this topic with two experts. Emilian Geczi, the youth and community engagement coordinator for Chicago Wilderness, addressed the reasons that youth these days are disconnected from nature and shows us that not only electronics are the cause. In addition, we talked with Elizabeth Soper, associate director of Eco-Schools USA, who helps lead school programs for the National Wildlife Federation.

Elizabeth and Emilian explain why it is important to connect children to nature and offer simple suggestions on how to encourage them to do it.

Emilian’s main recommendation is for kids to use every moment outdoors as an opportunity to be attentive to nature: listening for bird songs, touching tree bark or climbing the trees, watching ants crawl into their tiny anthills to store tiny specs of food and crawling back out again to look for more. Chicago Wilderness, a consortium of more than 300 environmental organizations of all sizes in the greater Chicago region, has an initiative called No Child Left Inside, which is being celebrated for the entire month of June 2013. They have created a Children’s Outdoor Bill of Rights, which asserts that every child has the right to plant a flower, follow a trail, camp under the stars, and more. During Leave No Child Inside month, there will be numerous outdoor activities for children and their families throughout the region, all of which are listed on the Chicago Wilderness website.

My favorite on this list is the right to play in the mud. There’s nothing quite as satisfying as running around barefoot in a light, warm rain and squishing your feet into the soft, slimy mud. Everyone should experience it—preferably while watching the worms squiggle around on the grass while a stocky, shiny frog hops past.

Kids in the Eco-Schools USA program have it made too, because their teachers are encouraged to hold their classes outdoors! We were always trying to persuade our teachers to do that when I was in school, with little success. But in Eco-Schools, holding class in the dappled sunlight under the trees is not only likely, it is encouraged. Elizabeth told us about Eco-Schools guidelines and materials, most of which are available for free on the National Wildlife Federation Eco-Schools USA website. Getting kids outside actually helps them to be more confident and calm, and even improves their academic performance, Soper said. They get in touch with themselves while getting in touch with nature.

Eco-Schools USA shows teachers and administrators how to make their school buildings and grounds more eco-friendly, with the help of students. Their programs get students outside, showing them how to create rooftop gardens and wildlife habitat. Eco-Schools also encourages students to get involved in understanding issues in their local community, such as identifying sources of local water pollution and learning what they can do about it.

Our experts show that regardless of how busy children are, they can have more fun, get better grades, and learn more about their world just taking time each day to stop and smell the flowers…or to play in the mud.

Amen to that.

—As part of the Worldview/EcoMyths partnership, this blog also appears on the Chicago Public Radio page, where you can also download the related podcast.