July 30, 2008

Kids Need to Discover Nature the Old-Fashioned Way


Wildlife groups have been sounding an alarm this summer, not an unfamiliar one.

They are worried that too many kids will spend too much time indoors glued to a digital screen. Or when kids are outside, their time will be heavily structured and supervised.

"Most of us grew up hearing the phrase 'Go outside and play,' but today's kids don't get told to do that," said Don Torino, education chairman of the Bergen County Audubon Society.

Unsupervised play has all but vanished from our urban and suburban societies, with too many of us worried about the safety of our kids to let them roam.

But as we fill up our kids' summer days with tennis camps and swim lessons, many of us are forgetting to let them just soak up nature on their own, or maybe just spend an hour digging for worms in the back yard.

The possible result, warn many outdoors advocates, is a nation of kids beginning to suffer from a new epidemic: nature deficit disorder.

This summer, advocates have turned up the volume on their concerns about kids never experiencing the relaxation of a leisurely walk through the woods or of an afternoon spent skipping stones on a pond.

Besides pledging to create more programs at nature centers and convince more schools to include more lessons on ecology, a number of wildlife groups have set a loftier goal: persuading parents to pencil a "green hour" into their kids' days.

By "green hour" these nature enthusiasts don't just mean signing kids up for a class at the local nature center or zoo, or having them play sports at an adult-supervised, heavily structured game. They mean sending kids out into their back yard and neighborhoods without toys, swing sets or trampolines as distractions to look for birds, climb a tree or explore.

Convinced that many parents will need help figuring out how to fill 60 minutes outdoors, the National Wildlife Federation has created a new Web site, greenhour.org, to give parents ideas. The site lets you plug in your ZIP code to find nature spots within 15 miles.

There were more than 50 places listed for my ZIP code. At first I was heartened to realize that my own kids have been to about 10 of them. But I quickly realized that many of their visits were on organized school trips or family outings planned only because we had friends or relatives visiting from out of town.

This seems to be the way a lot of kids take in nature these days, as special outings or as organized, adult-supervised activities.

At Flat Rock Brook Nature Center in Englewood, weekly classes, guided hikes and summer camps for kids generally fill up, said Stephen Wiessner, the center's executive director. Same is true at nearby Tenafly Nature Center.

That would seem to belie the argument that kids aren't spending time outdoors.

But Wiessner points out that the time is spent a lot differently than it was in his childhood growing up on a farm in South Jersey, where he was often allowed to wander freely.

At nature centers, kids often have to be guided on the path to discovery, instead of finding it on their own.

Flat Rock has one class called "Never Say 'Ugh' to a Bug." It's offered so that today's kids learn not to fear or be grossed out by insects things that you would think children, by their nature, ought to think are cool.

Naturalists say it's increasingly common to find kids who initially find nature to be icky, kids who bristle at the idea of getting a little mud on their sneakers,

"We'll have some kids who say at first that they don't want to get dirty," said Jennifer Kleinbaum, Tenafly Nature Center's executive director. "We challenge them on that one. Most kids, when you do get them outdoors, you'll find that they'll be kids. They'll get curious and they'll explore and get dirty."

It says something about the culture we live in today that many of our kids need to be schooled in the art of getting dirty and appreciating all things slimy and scaly.

It says something, too, that many of us parents budget nature into our kids the same way we budget in dance classes and swim lessons.

Flat Rock offers a popular and well-attended series of family night hikes on Tuesdays in the summer. Families, of course, come and hike anytime on their own in the summer, Wiessner points out. But too many of us are so programmed to think these things have to be programmed.

"There's so much competition for kids' time these days," Wiessner said. "Parents just find themselves thinking in terms of what they can fit onto the calendar."

As part of this national campaign to reverse kids' nature deficit, Torino is leading a new junior naturalist program sponsored by the Wild Birds Unlimited store in Paramus. Kids can come to the store and get a list of birds and wildlife to search for in their neighborhoods and then get awarded a prize when they return with a filled checklist.

After discovering what they can find in their own neighborhoods, Torino hopes the kids who participate will feel the urge to keep wandering the outdoors. And maybe the next time, they can do it without the aid of a checklist or a guide.


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