If kids are not going outside, who in the world is going to care about the spotted owl in 15 years?

Canada West News Service – March 05, 2007
By Katherine Dedyna

One of Eric Higgs's biggest fears is that his young son might some day get lost in a "sea of technology" rather than experiencing the natural world. Higgs is head of environmental studies at the University of Victoria - and he's worried something is amiss in the landscape of childhood.

Higgs wants to know how we can bring children outside, both literally and figuratively, and make outdoor play a priority.

Fear-mongering tabloid TV, lawsuits over playground injuries and over-protective parents are leading to a serious disconnect between kids and the great outdoors, laments Richard Louv, author of Last Child in the Woods: Saving Our Children from Nature-Deficit Disorder.

"Kids can turn out just fine without having a nature experience," Richard Louv says. "What I'm saying is they're missing out on a huge enrichment of their lives."

That disconnect will change the wild places of the world, its creatures and human health for the worse, unless adults get working on child's play, he says.

Louv, 58, speaks movingly of the woods and fields on the edge of his Kansas City boyhood home: "I owned those woods. They were in my head then, and they're in my head now.

"Each of you has a place in nature you go sometimes, even if it was torn down. We cannot be the last generation to have that place."

At this rate, kids who miss the sense of wonder outdoors won't grow up to be protectors of natural landscapes. If the decline in parks use continues across North America, who will defend parks against encroachment, he asks.

"If kids are not going outside, who in the world is going to care about the spotted owl in 15 years?"

He wants to make one thing clear. "Kids can turn out just fine without having a nature experience. What I'm saying is they're missing out on a huge enrichment of their lives."

That applies to everything from their attention spans, physical health and mental health, to stress levels, creativity and cognitive skills.

Experts predict modern kids will be the first since the Second World War to have poorer health than their parents - and they say a lack of outside play is surely part of it.

Even a tiny outdoor experience can inculcate wonder in a child.

The three-year-old turning over his first rock realizes he's not alone in the world, he notes.

Nearby nature does not have to be Yosemite. "It's the clump of trees at the end of the cul-de-sac. To a child's eye, that can be the whole universe, and we really need to value that more."

Louv cites a University of Illinois study that found symptoms of attention deficit and hyperactivity disorder were much improved by time in nature.

Why not add that to Ritalin and behavioural modification, he asks.

He points to research that suggests kids do better academically in schools with a nature component and says play in nature fosters leadership by the smartest, not by the toughest.

Louv calls on everyone, from developers, to schools and outdoorsy citizens to help recapture for kids some of the freedom and joy of exploring, taking risks, getting creative, finding camaraderie in forts and fields and woods that cement love, respect and need for the landscape.

Kids aren't to blame. They were indulged and frightened by the baby boomers lamenting the end of "free-range" childhood. It's dangerous out there from time to time, but repetitive stress from computers is replacing breaking an arm as a childhood rite of passage, he says.

Baby boomers should devote some of their energies to getting their grandkids outside, he says.

"We are going to have to be intentional about taking kids into nature. This could yet be our greatest cause."

© The Gazette (Montreal) 2007

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