One of the side effects of focusing on biology this year with my children has been the opportunity to get out in nature. Like a lot of kids, it often seems like they’d be happy spending the whole day glued to one glowing screen or another, no matter how nice it might be outdoors. But lately I’ve noticed it takes a lot less coaxing and cajoling on my part to get them to take a walk down by the canal, where we’re keeping an eye out for the re-emergence of the alien pods we investigated last year, or count the painted turtles sunning themselves on the branches that dip into the water. We’re starting to learn where the giant snapping turtle likes to hang out just under the water near the shore, and where the muskrats have their holes. The kids even get excited when we spot a new bird we haven’t seen before – something none of us would have paid attention to even a year ago.
Actually, one of my kids confided to me, one of the reasons he no longer argues when I suggest we take a walk is that he picked up my copy of Richard Louv’s 2005 book Last Child in the Woods: Saving Our Children from Nature-Deficit Disorder. In it, Louv describes research that shows outdoor activity helps kids grow emotionally, socially and intellectually. It also shows the problems that come with cutting out recess and discouraging unstructured play. When the book first came out, I interviewed Louv and spoke with environmental educators in my area for a local newspaper. They told me that being outdoors had become a strange and frightening activity for many families. City school kids at a local nature center had no idea how to walk around without bonking themselves with a dead sapling or tripping over a root. Program leaders began carrying hand sanitizer to reassure parents who were afraid of letting their kids get wet or dirty.
Hoping to change the lack of understanding and appreciation for the living world, Louv helped form the Children & Nature Network. The organization is a clearinghouse for information on the benefits of outdoor activity, and provides support for grassroots efforts to bring programs and events to local communities. (One such local effort inspired by the national organization was formed in my town this year.)
And now the C&NN and another group called ecoAmerica have created a website, Nature Rocks, to make it easy for families to have fun in nature on their own and with other families. There’s a searchable map of the United States where you can look for outdoor destinations, activities and services like zoos, ski areas and campgrounds. There’s an activity finder that lets you specify time available (from 30 minutes to overnight), location (from your own backyard to the greater region) and your children’s ages, from infants to teens. They’re creating community with Facebook and Twitter. And there’s a “Nature Staycation” planning guide you can print, with some games and activities to get you started.
Louv told me he wrote Last Child in the Woods because he was afraid future generations would lose their sense of wonder. With summer fast approaching, it’s the perfect time to start thinking about ways to help your kids spend more time outdoors with the turtles in the mud and the muck.