Warning: No Drugs Required, Just a Little Time Outside
By Jedd Ferris

It’s no secret that kids these days are seeing less green space and more screen space.

A study by the Kaiser Family Foundation found that the average American child spends 44 hours per week—more than six hours a day—staring at some kind of electronic screen. According to the American Obesity Association approximately 30 percent of children between the ages 6 to 11 are overweight and 15 percent are obese.

Richard Louv, author of Last Child in the Woods, refers to this growing problem as “nature deficit disorder.” He believes nature deficit disorder is causing more problems than just obesity. He argues that many mental and spiritual health problems facing kids and adolescents today stem from a lack of connection to the outdoors. Kids are so plugged into television shows and fixated on their Play Station 3s that they’re forgetting about the natural world.

Research has shown that access to nature can reduce stress, increase attention spans, and ultimately make children better learners.

“When a child is out in nature, all the senses get activated,” Louv said in an interview with Parent and Child. “He is immersed in something bigger than himself, rather than focusing narrowly on one thing, such as a computer screen. He’s seeing, hearing, touching, even tasting. Out in nature, a child’s brain has the chance to rejuvenate, so the next time he has to focus and pay attention, perhaps in school, he’ll do better.”

Fortunately, Louv’s book has started a national dialogue. He has furthered that dialogue by starting a campaign to help decrease the number of hours children are plugged into electronic mediums, cleverly called “No Child Left Inside.”

In Northern California, a number of organizations are working to get kids out of doors. One of the best known is Bay Area Wilderness Training, a project of the non- profit Earth Island Institute. BAWT introduces kids, teens and young adults from throughout Northern California to the eye-opening landscapes and experiences that can be found in California’s diverse wild areas, whether that’s just across town or across the state.

“It’s hard to imagine but there are kids in the Bay Area that have never seen the Pacific Ocean,” says Kyle Macdonald, who founded BAWT in 1999 after working with a similar program in the northeast run by the Appalachian Mountain Club. “That’s what we’re combating.”

BAWT accomplishes this not by taking the kids out themselves but by training educators, youth workers and other adults – and providing the gear – to take kids out in the wilderness, from San Francisco’s Presidio to Death Valley, Joshua Tree and Yosemite. The kids served by these programs range from urban youth from San Francisco’s Bayview-Hunter’s Point neighborhood to the children of immigrant farm worker families from the Central Valley – and all sorts of communities in between.

“We advocate for a progression of trips, from day hikes to car camping and then backpacking trips. But we leave it up to a group leaders to decide what’s best,” Macdonald notes. “We’ve reached over 5,000 youth since beginning and we train on average 50 youth workers per year through our primary wilderness leadership training program.”

These sorts of programs help immensely. But ultimately Louv argues that getting children outside comes down to parents, who are suffering from media-induced paranoia over letting kids play by themselves outside. Even active kids are usually only involved in regimented team sports, not able to openly explore the wonders of nature.

Parents are also spending too much time in the workplace. According to a study by the National Sleep Foundation, the average employed American works a 46-hour workweek, and 38 percent of the respondents in their study worked more than 50 hours per week. Factor this in
to a culture that takes two weeks vacation per year, as opposed to five six weeks in Western Europe. With parents being busy, kids have become too structured and over-stimulated.

To help get parents on the right track, the Washington, D.C.-based National Wildlife Federation (NWF) created the Green Hour program. It encourages parent to give kids one-hour per day outside where they are engaging in some kind of unstructured play and interaction with the natural world. If anyone knows how to turn kids on to nature, it’s the NWF. They’re the organization that created the Ranger Rick magazine 40 years ago.

“It’s frightening that we’re raising a generation that has no connection to nature,” says Bethe Almeras, managing educator for the NWF. “As conservationists we have to worry about our future voters. These kids won’t care about what they don’t know.”

Green Hour will first focus on getting the message out through its website. They are encouraging parents to get kids outside for simple activities like a walk on a park nature trail or a day planting a garden. In addition to offering regularly updated tips for getting kids into the outdoors, the goal is to also foster an online community that will start an ongoing dialogue between parents.

“We want to reach the parents,” says Almeras of the NWF. “That’s the only way we are going to get kids outside. We’re trying to make nature a family value.”

Editor’s Note: ASJ Editor Pete Gauvin contributed to this story.