Research Documents Child-Nature Disconnect, Shows “Life’s Better Outside”
AUSTIN, Texas — “We have this rock in our yard we call our thinking rock. We’ll go out there and read, and if we see a bird, we look it up in my husband’s bird book.”
Dr. Kimberly Avila Edwards values time outside with her two kids. As a pediatrician with Austin Regional Clinic and chair of the Texas Pediatric Society obesity committee, she’s one of a growing number of experts who believe today’s kids are becoming disconnected from nature, and that reconnecting has important benefits.
For the Edwards family, unstructured nature play means playing tag, flying kites, having lunch on the grass or looking for ladybugs. They’ve made time in nature part of daily life.
Recent research shows that is not the case for many Americans today. Author Richard Louv explains this eloquently in his groundbreaking book “Last Child in the Woods: Saving Our Children from Nature-Deficit Disorder.”
A new edition is out this summer, updating the 2006 original with a new field guide for parents and grandparents, 100 actions people can take, nature activities for kids and families and suggestions for transforming communities. It carries a message of hope, but it also reviews a growing body of research that links the nature-deficit problem to issues like childhood obesity, educational and developmental challenges and other ills.
Louv’s book has spawned a nationwide movement. The resulting Children and Nature Network is bringing politicians, pediatricians, educators, architects, environmentalists, wildlife scientists and an astounding diversity of others into an expanding circle of supporters. The group’s Web site (www.childrenandnature.org) includes two sets of research studies.
One set of research reports by universities, medical institutions and others details the problem, with key findings summarized as follows:
- Children’s use of space has changed from being primarily outdoors to indoors and supervised
- Children spend more of their diminishing free time in structured activities such as sports
- Children spend considerable time with electronic media and multiple forms of media
- Children know more about Pokémon than common wildlife
- Children are walking and bicycling to school less than they used to
- Parents identify safety as the biggest barrier to children’s independent play
The good news is another set of research studies shows great value in reconnecting children with nature, with several key examples summarized as follows:
- Unstructured free play brings cognitive, social and health benefits
- Nature-smart kids get higher test scores
- Outdoor experience for teens has self-reported life-changing results
- Green school grounds foster achievement and responsibility
- Natural settings provide psychological benefits
- Access to nature nurtures self-discipline, reduces stress in children
- Parks bring social, community health and economic benefits
In Texas, the state with the sixth highest number of childhood obesity cases, Dr. Edwards is part of the state’s Children and Nature coalition.
“If we don’t address this issue today, then what we’re facing is in the next generation children will have a much shorter life span than their parents,” Edwards said, noting that the Texas Pediatric Society has developed a Childhood Obesity Toolkit for health care providers. The toolkit encourages limiting the time children spend on TV, video games, and computers and promoting physical activity, including a “healthy lifestyle prescription” that recommends one hour of outdoor play every day.
Other Texas efforts are encouraging urban parents to enjoy state parks and outdoor activities with their children. Texas Parks and Wildlife Department partnered with advertising agency GSD&M, which worked pro bono to create an initiative called Life’s Better OutsideTM. Under the Life’s Better Outside brand, TPWD promotes programs like Texas Outdoor Family weekend workshops where parents and kids learn to pitch tents, cook over campfires and reconnect with nature. This summer and fall, various state parks are starting a new series of Texas Outdoor Family weekends.
Visitors can see what to do and where to go at state parks across Texas on the TPWD Web site, or by picking up a Texas State Park Guide booklet at any state park or at many local tourism bureaus. Campers can make state park reservations online, or by phoning (512) 389-8900. State parks host a wide array of tours and events, all accessible through an online calendar.
This summer, TPWD is continuing the Free Fishing in State Parks program that waives fishing license requirements within more than 50 state parks, including scheduled events at some parks where participants can learn fishing skills, have a chance to hook a fish and perhaps win door prizes like rods and reels. The department also has a new e-newsletter, State Parks Getaways, featuring park profiles, articles about camping, wildlife and other topics and links to park videos and photos. Anyone can sign up to receive the free e-newsletter and other information via the TPWD E-mail Subscription Service.