In September 2006, the National Dialogue on Children and Nature was hosted by the National Conservation Training Center in Shepherdstown, W.Va. The goal was to bring together Americans from as many sectors as possible, and to ask them for their ideas on how to get kids outside again.

The conference drew some 350 people from around the country, including academics, educators, health care experts, residential developers, urban planners and representatives from companies such as REI and Disney. Government and nonprofit conservation agencies, and other groups, also sent representatives.

"What brought this varied group of powerful individuals together and maybe for the first time under one roof? The Nation's children brought us to Shepherdstown."
Welcome by Secretary
of the Interior
Dirk Kempthorne

Lessons from the National Dialogue on Children and Nature
Groups gathered each day after the plenary sessions to focus on four areas of vision and action for addressing “nature deficit disorder”.  These professionals, from traditional and nontraditional sectors, gathered to create solutions in the arenas of education, children’s health, modern culture and the built environment.
[+] Read a distilled summary of those series of facilitated group discussions

For decades, environmental educators, conservationists, and others have worked, often heroically, to bring more children to nature — usually with inadequate support from policy-makers. But now, a number of trends and national media attention have brought the concerns of these veteran advocates before a broader audience.

The anti-outdoor trend isn't just about nature. Between 2000 and 2004, sales of children's bikes fell by 21 percent, according to Bicycle Industry and Retailer News.

Even children's participation in some organized sports is beginning to fall.
Government does have a vested interest in this issue. Consider the future of our parks, for example. Several new reports chart a disturbing decline in visits to U.S. national parks. Such visits grew steadily from the 1930s until 1987, peaking at an average of 1.2 visits a person per year. But over the next 16 years, the number of people visiting those parks dropped by 25 percent.

At first glance, that might appear to be good news: less pressure on public lands. But those parks also depend on an ongoing political constituency, one that values nature and parks.

Oliver R.W. Pergams, a biology professor at the University of Illinois at Chicago, and Patricia A. Zaradic, a research associate at Stroud Water Research Center, report that 97.5 percent of the drop in attendance is due to the increased time Americans spend plugged into electronics. They found that, in 2003, the average American devoted 327 more hours to electronic pursuits than he or she did in 1987. Pergams and Zaradic warn about "videophilia" – a shift from loving streams (biophilia) to loving screens.

But what drives children and the rest of us into virtual reality? The answers range from lack of time to development patterns, but the main culprit is fear, particularly fear of strangers. This fear has less do with reality (the number of child abductions has been stable or falling for two decades) than with the seemingly endless loop of coverage for a handful of terrible crimes against children every year, while other significant stories go underreported.

For example, in January 2006, Media Matters for America, a nonprofit media watch organization, reported that the day after a major story broke about the National Security Agency's wiretapping without warrants (ruled unconstitutional in August 2006), NBC Nightly News devoted only 27 seconds on the NSA ruling -- and seven-and-a-half minutes to the JonBenet Ramsey murder investigation. That same day, The New York Times listed 13 reporters as contributing to its Ramsey story and only two to the NSA ruling.

So, is the issue videophilia, or fear aggravated by videovoyeurism?

Children at the conference spoke, too, mainly through pictures they drew of their most memorable outdoor experiences. Their words expressed how, when given a chance, young people can experience the same sense of wonder felt by earlier generation.

One girl described how she “jumped into the cold Maine ocean one night while vacationing on an island and, after waving our arms and legs, we witnessed bioluminescence in the water.”

When asked what obstacles prevented them from spending more time outdoors, and how that might be changed, the young people at the conference offered their own list: “parks/nature is inaccessible”; “schools have cut recess, have no trees/nature”; “nature isn’t ‘cool’”; schools should bring back field trips “to real parks with trails”; “school building design doesn’t require going outside. Incorporate nature into school.”

One boy, named Simon, summed up their feelings: “Whatever kids do is based on how adults have made the environment. Adults will control the government for the next 20 years. Kids do what adults allow them to do.They build highways that kids can’t cross to get to the forest. They make video games that keep kids inside. If adults provided better opportunities, kids would go out more.”

Today, as reflected at the Shepherdstown conference, a more hopeful counter-trend is occurring, one that could, over time, reduce our fear and send future generations outside to play. A grass-roots children-and-nature movement is emerging across the country, mainly at the regional level.
Peter Forbes, Center for Whole Communities
"I bring to this gathering the strong and unequivocal belief that our relationship to land, good, bad, and indifferent, is still the enduring story of our lives whether we accept it or not. Even in 2006, no matter where you live, few forces will have as much affect on the course of your life, your family, your community as the quality of that relationship between soul and soil."
[+] Peter Forbes

In December 2006, the reported that state and regional campaigns to reconnect kids to nature have been created or are forming in at least 22 cities -- including Cincinnati, Cleveland, Chicago, the San Francisco Bay Area, and St. Louis – as well as several states, with Connecticut, Florida, Colorado, and Texas among them.

These campaigns, which go by such names as “Leave No Child Inside” and “Life’s Better Outside,” often bring unlikely allies together. A host of related initiatives -- among them the simple-living, walkable-cities, nature-education, and land-trust movements -- have begun to find common cause, and collective strength, through this issue.

Speakers and panelists at Shepherdstown included Gina McCarthy, commissioner, Connecticut Department of Environmental Protection; David Orr, Oberlin College; Sylvia Earle, Explorer in Residence, National Geographic Society; Dr. Roberta Debiasi, George Washington University School of Medicine and Health Sciences; Dudley Edmonson, author, “Black & Brown Faces in America’s Wild Places”; Noah Mehrkam, The Rector Companies; Stephen Kellert, Yale University; Larry Selzer, president of The Conservation Fund, and others.

The Shepherdstown participants offered a tantalizing hint of what is possible.

Additional conference material will be added as it becomes available.

The National Dialogue on Children and Nature was hosted by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, The National Conservation Training Center (NCTC), the Conservation Fund, and Richard Louv. Conference resources Copyright ©2006 National Conservation Training Center