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Take It Outside!

When you envision your children playing outside, are they making mud pies, hunting doodlebugs and catching crawfish? Or are they maybe absorbed in a rousing game on their Nintendo DS while sitting on your front porch? For many kids, it’s the latter, and that issue is at the heart of author Richard Louv’s 2005 book Last Child in the Woods: Saving Our Children from Nature Deficit Disorder (NDD).

“Kids are not spending enough time in contact with nature,” says Cheryl Charles, director of the Louv-founded Children and Nature Network (C&NN). “And while NDD is not a medical diagnosis, common sense and research tells us that a disconnect with the outdoors is associated with a number of negative childhood trends.”

Specifically, Louv and followers of the “No Child Left Inside” movement believe that a cultural shift away from spending time outdoors is causing children to become more sedentary and robbing them of important life lessons. As a result, they say, NDD can be directly linked to many of today’s serious childhood problems including obesity, Attention Deficit Disorder and depression.

It seems that a little time spent in direct contact with the good-old outdoors can do some good for our children. “Children are happier, healthier and smarter when they have an opportunity to play in nature on a daily basis,” says Charles. “A mounting body of evidence indicates that academic scores tend to be higher … children tend to be more cooperative and … creativity and problem solving abilities are enhanced.”

Research also shows that kids are spending more and more time using electronic devices. Most recently, a January 2010 Kaiser Family Foundation study found that children aged 8 to 18 spend more than seven and a half hours a day plugged into telephones, computers, televisions, etc. And while advocates acknowledge that technology can be a useful learning tool, the balance does seem to be out of whack.

Outdoor Ideology
Kirk Evans, a fifth grade teacher at Olson Elementary in Allen, has seen firsthand the negative effects of that imbalance and believes wholeheartedly in the benefits to be reaped from experiential learning and interacting with nature. “Kids are great at finding things on the Internet, but when you take them outside and show them a body of water, they don’t understand that it’s filled with living organisms,” he says. “There is a disconnect between real life and the interpretation of what we get through technology.”

In an effort to bridge that disconnect, Evans started the Ecoliteracy Project at Norton Elementary five years ago. Now expanded to Olson, he says the project has provided hundreds of students with hands-on learning opportunities to go along with their classroom experiences that benefit their physical health, give them a sense of place and help them understand their role in the environment.

Kelly Moore Clarkson, an area mother of four boys, is equally passionate about the idea that experiencing nature is important for children. “We have tried to instill a love of nature in our children,” she says. Son Patrick, 13, joined Evans’ Ecoliteracy Project when he was a fifth grader. At that time, Clarkson says, Patrick was struggling with learning differences and struggling to enjoy school. Today, he is a confident, straight-A student and she credits the program for part of that transformation. “He would go out and come back completely wet and dirty and excited about what he learned,” says Clarkson. “He has such a passion for this—it’s like going outdoors with your own naturalist.”

If some legislators have their way, parents will soon have governmental support in getting children outdoors. Still pending before Congress, the No Child Left Inside Act was introduced on Earth Day 2009 with the goal of providing quality environmental education and to support outdoor learning programs. At the state level, the Texas Partnership for Children in Nature would provide for a plan that gives children opportunities to spend more time outdoors and better understand Texas natural resources. Filed as Senate Bill 205 during the 81st legislative session, the partnership unanimously passed the Senate, then died on the House General Calendar at the end of the session.  Advocates are calling for its revival in the next session, beginning January 2011.  

On-Your-Own Eco Projects
Ecoliteracy programs are not available at all schools, and it can be a challenge for parents in urban areas to find wild spaces for their children to play. Additionally, fears over “stranger danger” and worries about bugs and other creatures may cause parents to put outdoor play low on the priority list. But Charles says many of those fears are exaggerated. It seems that those mudpies and nature-filled adventures can help round out your child’s development, and otherwise well-intended parents could wind up limiting their children’s self-esteem by limiting their activities to ‘indoor’ extracurricular programs.

The Dallas area is home to a number of safe outdoor environments where kids can get their hands dirty. See the sidebar (on left) for a list of places to visit with your kids.

Assures Charles, “Parents have not been told explicitly how important outdoor experiences are to development.

“While we are not likely to return to a time when parents allow their children to roam freely, we need to create places and spaces for our children so parents feel comfortable and children have an enhanced experienced outdoors. It doesn’t take money, it takes time.”