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Naturalist Mike Weilbacher lives in Merion Station and directs the Schuylkill Center for Environmental Education in Philadelphia.
In our education-obsessed culture, where No Child is Left Behind and elite kids play piano and speak three languages by the age of four, just about every American kid is deprived. For in the greatest retreat since the Red Army’s Long March across China, children across the American landscape are vanishing from a critical piece of territory: their own back yards.
And there isn’t a kid on the planet who knows what a huckleberry is, other than maybe a character in a Mark Twain book.
This phenomenon is increasingly well studied: kids spend only 20 percent of the time outside their parents once did, says one; the territory they roam is only 11 percent of the land their parents played in, says another. In this brave new world of Facebook and YouTube, Twitter and Google, kids are increasingly connected, spending more than seven hours a day on entertainment media, some 53 hours per week – more than a full-time job! A kindergartener starts school with – get this – some 5,000 hours of TV under his belt, the time it takes to earn a college degree.
And we adults are colluding in this retreat. No Child Left Behind has chained kids to their desks, number-2 pencils glued to their hands, and kids even miss recess for more practice time. If a kid is outside playing sports, it’s not a pickup game in the sandlot, but a league organized by overzealous parents that carpool kids endlessly from one game to the next.
Meanwhile, children’s health is in a serious and drastic decline: asthma, attention deficit disorder, obesity and diabetes are all skyrocketing. Kids who watch too much TV don’t physically move, change the working of their brains, and even eat more poorly than other children – scientists have discovered an inverse relationship between TV use and the amount of vegetables in one’s diet. This next generation might not live as long as its parents.
At the same time, an exploding series of studies indicates that kids are physically and mentally healthier if they spend time outdoors and in nature. They calm down when surrounded by green, which seems to ameliorate their ADD. And free play outside lets children develop social skills they can’t get from tube-watching (or from playing sports under adult supervision), and their skills are more age-appropriate. They are more creative, too.
Children who play in nature have better concentration, too, and better hand-eye coordination. Since separate studies indicate a correlation between the ability to concentrate and success in standardized tests, that explains the kicker: numerous studies now indicate that learning through nature-based programs helps kids score higher on standardized tests. Want your kid to go to Harvard? Have her study outdoors. Or just kick her outside to play.
Actually, that’s not so silly; check this out: one study of 101 Michigan high schools noted that the presence of larger windows with more views of trees inspired students to have higher test scores and higher graduation rates. And a greater percentage of the students planned on going to college. Simply seeing a tree outside the window inspires students to want to be better. And in high schools with at-risk students, exposure to nature-based programs led to fewer suspensions, decreased absenteeism, and fewer disciplinary incidents.
But change is (maybe too gently) blowing in the wind. ...... Places as disparate as nature centers and urban parks are unveiling natural playscapes, areas where kids can linger and climb rocks, play with sticks, push sand and gravel around, get muddy – do lots of delicious nothing. Nature preschools are becoming popular, too; places where toddlers spend quality time outdoors. Even middle schools are developing nature-based curricula where the bulk of the student’s school day is given to studying the environment to integrate math, language and social studies into the real world – like Radnor’s Watershed and Welsh Valley’s Waterbound.
And some 1,600 groups representing 50 million people have organized into a No Child Left Inside coalition, a spin on the Bush-era name for his education bill, lobbying Obama for statewide environmental-literacy plans that include children spending quality time outdoors. If the Obama bill ever gets to Congress, it requires states seeking federal funding to create an environmental-literacy plan – a great carrot.
But it’s a long climb, for culture is the very air our children breathe, and culture conspires to convince kids that everything important can be found in that little box. We’ve seduced children indoors with all that diversity and color in technology, inventing new devices seemingly by the minute, even as we drain the world of its biological diversity.
Now childhood itself is an endangered species. If we are going to save either the environment or our children, we have to take a surprisingly simple but very radical first step.
Unplug our kids and kick them outside. To play. And maybe even find huckleberries.