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Why Kids Need Nature

July 20, 2012 | Emily Moeschler

“Now I see the secret of the making of the best persons, It is to grow in the open air and to eat and sleep with the earth.” -Walt Whitman

Whitman wrote these words over 150 years ago, though it seems their importance is more relevant than ever. The call of technology beckons us to come inside, to stare at the glowing screens, to spend our precious time updating our social networks. It is a telling example that my 13-year-old cousin knows more about computers than I do. Then again, I am an outdoor educator: being in the wilderness is how I make my living.

I see first hand the way children respond when they get into nature. It is as if the trappings of their sophisticated lives fall away, and even to them, the mere conversation of video games seems out of place. Every time I bring kids into the woods I am reminded that nature—the mountain breeze, the feel of rock under the hands, the smell of pine on the trail, the sound of water rushing through the gulley—has not lost its power.

Some of my fondest memories are set in the woods behind my childhood home, where I built forts, climbed trees, and got dirty. Unfortunately, children are constantly sanitized these days, both figuratively and literally. As Tom Wolfe famously asked, “who really won the West? Antisepsis did, I guess.” But there is a mass of research arguing it doesn’t have to—nor should it—be this way.

One of the preeminent thought-bearers on the importance of nature in healthy development is Richard Louv, who in 2005 published Last Child in the Woods: Saving our Children from Nature-Deficit Disorder. He coined the latter phrase in reference to the symptoms many children experience due to their lack of contact with the natural world. The book is chock-full of research supporting the claim.

Citing a study done by the Children’s Hospital and Medical Center in Seattle, he writes, “each hour of television watched per day by preschoolers increases 10 percent the likelihood that they will develop concentration problems and other symptoms of attention-deficit disorders by age seven.” With the rise of iPads and other interactive technologies increasingly being used as parenting devices, this fact should be quite alarming.

Thankfully, the solutions can be simple and there are many easy ways we can indeed save our children; Louv includes a list of over 100 activities in his latest edition. But ultimately, they can all be summed up in a simple phrase: GET OUTSIDE. The summers, of course, provide ample time for camps and other excursions outside, but year-round, time can always be made for a short ‘nature walk,’ as my grandma used to call them.

To wrap it up, I’ll quote Richard Louv one more time: “we can now look at it this way: time in nature is not leisure time; it’s an essential investment in our children’s health.”

– Marty Brodsky, staff, Avid4 Adventure

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