Network aims to reunite children with nature

The Grand Rapids Press – September 29, 2007
By Myron Kukla

Children in urban America are growing up wired to their TVs and video games. They are stressed out, flabby and have a one-in-five chance of being obese, statistics show.

To help fight this trend, Arizona-based educator Cheryl Charles and author Richard Louv have created the Children in Nature Network, an organization designed to foster children's love of the outdoors.

"In all of history, kids have played outdoors in open lots, fields and forests, building awareness of nature, developing their curiosity and creating a love of nature," Charles said Friday during a stop at Hope College. "But now, in just three decades, that has virtually disappeared."

Charles, president and CEO of the Children in Nature Network, said the combination of our electronic world and parental fears of allowing children to play outdoors because of predators has led to a system of isolating children from nature.

"We are raising a generation that is virtually under house arrest," she said while promoting a national awareness campaign entitled "No Child Left Inside: Connecting Children & Nature."

Charles' group has partnered with the Outdoor Discovery Center of Wildlife Unlimited in Fillmore Township to establish a local branch of what she hopes will become a national affiliation of Children in Nature Network communities.

"It's very sad when you see children at the Outdoor Discovery Center who are afraid to walk down a path through trees, or who get stressed and start crying because they are not used to being outside," ODC Executive Director Travis Williams said.

Started in 2000 as a conservation and outdoor education center, ODC today averages 23,000 students and visitors a year for outdoor programs that range from nature programs for toddlers and moms, to school field trips.

Julie Stoneman, executive director of the Grand Rapids-based Land Conservancy of West Michigan, said the ideas expressed by the Children in Nature Network fit with the conservancy's mission to preserve natural areas for public use.

"If the children of today do not get out into nature and see the value of playing in forests and building forts and watching frogs in ponds, then they are not going to see the importance of preserving these areas when they grow up," said Stoneman, who plans to be part of a local task force being developed by the ODC.