Sunday, February 1, 2009

Children and Nature

With the release of his 2005 book, Last Child in the Woods, Richard Louv ignited concern about young people's disconnection from the natural world. Children spend an increasing amount of time indoors and the time they do spend outside is typically in structured environments like playgrounds or engaged in structured activities such as organized sports. Direct experiences with nature are rarer.

The buzz created by Louv's publication and its subsequent second edition, was followed by attempts to understand, through research, what effect the phenomena Louv called "nature deficit disorder" was having on the health and well being of young people. Some notable findings include research by University of Illinois scholars demonstrating that children with Attention-Deficit Disorder have an enhanced ability to focus after outdoor activities such as camping and fishing (Faber Taylor et al., 2001; Kuo and Faber Taylor, 2004). Other researchers have confirmed a correlation between play in nature and children’s developing imagination and sense of place (Manuel 2003; Louv 2005).

Louv sites multiple reasons for the lack of time spent in nature amongst children: diminishing wild spaces that are accessible and/or considered safe, overscheduled lives, shifting values, and others. One way his and others' work on this topic has been turned into concrete action is to target schools as a site where environmental education can be emphasized and time outside can be built in.

The No Child Left Behind Act (NCLB) passed by the Bush administration in 2001 standardized the expectations for what children should be learning in school and implemented testing to assure every school met those expectations. Set goals for reading, math and science have been articulated and schools whose test scores fall short are penalized. A consequence of this has been that schools have, out of necessity, focused a vast majority of their time and energy teaching for the standardized tests. A 2008 Center on Education Policy study reports that since NCLB has taken effect relatively large shifts have taken place in the amount of instructional hours allotted to various subjects: Increases in math and english have occurred while decreases in most everything else.

For those concerned about the time children spend outside and their opportunities to learn about nature and the environment, these changes have been disheartening. In response, a far reaching coalition of citizens, politicians, environmentalists, parents and educators have initiated the No Chid Left Inside Act. This act would add environmental education to the things that we agree all kids should know and would provide new federal funding for outdoor learning activities and high-quality environmental education. 

No Child Left Inside is one of multiple initiatives to reconnect children with nature. To find out more about some of the remarkable efforts afoot, the Children and Nature Network has an amazing website that includes a map of North America highlighting places where efforts have been initiated to get kids outside and bring natural spaces back into cities.

Given that large swaths of green open spaces are not available in most inner city communities, we are not only heartened by these efforts, but we are also interested in learning more about how conservation of small urban spaces might improve the health of children and adults who reside near them. For example, we've been spending time lately with the Urban Creeks Council, a group dedicated to the restoration of creeks within urban settings and we hope to conduct research that can tell us what kinds of benefits are occurring in the lives of people who live, work or play in the restored environments. We'll keep you posted.

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