When I was a child, I wandered the neighborhood with friends, explored a gully across the street, waded in streams, and rode bikes to town or to the Big Lake. I remember the summers stretching on forever and hot sidewalks and lazy days. Winters I was bundled up and sliding down snow hills or in my teens, skiing up north. Many of my memories are of being outside. Our parents kept tabs on us, but we had way more freedom to wander the outdoors than my kids, who are now 32 and 29. My guess is that kids these days have even less time for getting out into nature. Especially with the growing trend for children to be on tablets, cell phones and computers.
Lack of outdoor time for children has been identified as a concern for some time, most specifically in Richard Louv’s 2005 book, “Last Child in the Woods: Saving Our Children from Nature-Deficit Disorder.” In his book, Louv cited studies showing that children are spending increasingly less time in nature, examined the causes, raised concerns about the implications, and coined the term “nature deficit disorder. In a 2009 Psychology Today article, Louv defined it this way: “Nature-deficit disorder is not a formal diagnosis, but a way to describe the psychological, physical and cognitive costs of human alienation from nature, particularly for children in their vulnerable developing years.” Research compiled by Louv points toward attention difficulties, inactivity and obesity, and other problems. In addition, the less that children experience nature, he believes, the less they are ecologically literate and interested in environmental protection. Some of the reasons he cites for the decreased time in nature, include parental fears of kidnapping and crime, overly organized play and sports schedules, and the increasing use of digital technology by younger and younger children. Not only does digital media keep them indoors, but studies are showing this is contributing to a lack of focus and discontent and irritability that continues into adulthood.
Last fall, the American Academy of Pediatrics, an organization with over 60,000 pediatrician and specialist members in the U.S. and other countries, updated its guidelines for exposure to digital media. According to the group, the youngest children are the “most vulnerable.” They recommend that babies under 18 months old not have any exposure to any digital media. That includes nursing a baby with the TV on. The Academy cautions that this can lead to overstimulation, anxiety, and problems sleeping. It also can decrease interaction with parents, which is important for a baby’s brain development. Children two to five years old should be limited to one hour of screen time a day. For children over six, the group recommends that parents set guidelines for screen time (they don’t count online homework assignments), establish times when digital media is not used, and serve as role models by their own appropriate use of digital media.
In addition to setting limits on access to the digital world, there are many easy ways parents can get young people outside and engage their attention:
• Make sure your children are outdoors a portion of every day.
• Donʼt overschedule. Allow for unorganized playtime.
• Take your children on walks and hikes.
• Teach your children about the value of natural resources, such as lakes, rivers, wetlands and dunes.
• Read stories about nature. Ask your librarian or a teacher for recommendations.
• Turn your backyard into natural habitat.
• Plant a native plant garden.
• Take a trip to a natural area for your vacation.
• Work to ensure there are neighborhood playgrounds and encourage local government to maintain natural areas for public use.
To get started, check out Childrenandnature.org, an organization founded by Louv to help get children out into nature again.
Tanya Cabala is a lifelong resident of the White Lake area in Muskegon County, and has been an environmental and community activist for over 25 years, working to restore White Lake and aiding efforts to protect the Great Lakes. She is also an elected city council member, freelance writer, and consultant. Readers are encouraged to contact her via www.tanyacabala.com.