Show Kids Nature’s Wonders

The News & Observer Publishing Company – September 23, 2007
By Sarah Lindenfeld Hall

Show Kids Nature’s Wonders

Taking the kids outside.

It's like eating healthy or voting.

You should do it. But do you?

If you're the average mom and dad, you probably don't.

So say environmentalists and nature educators who think a little prodding might induce parents and others into some outdoor exploration with the children.

They're signing on to Take a Child Outside Week, an inaugural event that is growing faster than its founder in Raleigh thought possible.

"I honestly thought this was going to be a little North Carolina-focused pilot year," said Liz Baird, director of school programs for the N.C. Museum of Natural Sciences. "It's just taken off like hotcakes."

More than 70 partners across North America have signed on for the week, which runs Monday through Sunday.

It is centered on a Web site, takeachildoutside.org. Here, adults sign in and check a box that says, "I agree to take a child outside to explore the natural world at least once during national 'Take a Child Outside Week.' "

And then, once this outing is completed, the site allows adults and children to document the experience online.

Instead of building forts and catching crayfish after school, Baird and others say children today live highly structured lives with soccer at 4 p.m. and homework, video games and TV until bedtime.

Free play outside in nature does not translate directly into a multiple-choice answer on a test and is no longer valued, they fear. Children are missing out.

"Parents feel like if you just let your kid run around outdoors, you're not doing what you need to do to get your child into the best college," Baird said. "The skills and experiences and knowledge that you learn when you're outdoors are really the skills that you need when you get out in the real world. You learn how to solve problems. You learn how to be observant. All your senses come alive."

Their rallying cry is fueled by a two-year-old book by Richard Louv that warns about children with "nature-deficit disorder" and statistics that show child obesity is getting worse.

They worry that children who don't spend time outside won't develop a connection to nature and appreciate it as adults.

"If today's kids don't have a sense of that connection to the natural world, they're less likely to protect it when they get older," Baird said.

Spotty attendance

Locally, the concern is buoyed by lagging participation in nature programs.

This week, the staff at Hemlock Bluffs Nature Preserve in Cary canceled some programs because of lack of interest. The park serves about 4,500 people a year in programs but has room for as many as 3,000 more.

"When you think about how large a population Cary has and that each of our programs has a maximum group size of 10 and a lot of those aren't filled, it's kind of sad," said Lisa Plante, program specialist at the park.

School classes, homeschool groups and Boy and Girl Scouts still fill nature education programs at some area parks, though school visits have dropped off at others, including at Hemlock Bluffs.

But the participation in public programs, the kinds that parents sign their children up for, are mixed. Sometimes they're full, local educators say. Often they're almost empty.

D'Nise Hefner has an idea why it is happening.

Hefner, the educational program director at Blue Jay Point County Park in Wake County, recently mailed a survey to parents with children roughly 9 to 12 years old to find out why they were leaving the park's programs. The No. 1 reason was a busy family schedule.

Blue Jay Point also is seeing a decrease in programs geared toward families with children ages 5 and up, Hefner said.

Still, requests for school programs at the park were up 25 percent last year from previous years.

"We are still addressing some of the needs of kids," Hefner said. "But it's not something that the family is choosing individually. We would like to figure out how to do that."

At state parks, about 250,000 people per year attended nature programs, a number that has risen slightly over the years, but not as much as hoped.

Park rangers and nature educators say they're all trying to determine how to bring people back to programs that often cost little or nothing. But, they said, they have little money to advertise.

At Umstead State Park, park ranger Keith Nealson said sometimes it is as easy as a name change. Nobody showed up for a program about how animals spend the winter. But when he gave it the horror-movie-sounding name "Sleepy Creepy Crawlers," he filled a room.

All-encompassing TV

"We find ourselves in competition with TV," Nealson said. "It's always there. It's always on. It's all-encompassing for a lot of kids."

Debbie Richardson, who lives in North Raleigh, spent her childhood outside, hiking in the woods, along creeks.

"We were never just in the house," Richardson said.

She makes sure her son, Cole, 3, is outside at least two hours a day. To avoid the heat this summer, they would have picnic breakfasts and play before it got too hot.

"For me, it's not just physical health, it's emotional health," she said. "I think you're healthier if you're outside. It's as important as brushing your teeth or going to your doctor."

Mary Burroughs, 17, a senior at Enloe High School, says being outdoors is therapy.

She has grown up just a couple of minutes from Hemlock Bluffs Nature Preserve in Cary. And her family goes on frequent camping trips.

In high school, she began backpacking and has explored the Appalachian Trail and Costa Rica.

On Saturday, as part of her work to earn a Gold Award from the Girl Scouts, she will present an activity book for children ages 5 to 12 to help them explore Hemlock Bluffs.

It is hard to find the time to go outside, Burroughs acknowledges, especially with school and other demands. But she said she thinks her time is better spent in nature. She feels that she is doing something worthwhile.

"I find the outdoors to be really peaceful," Burroughs said. "It's just, for me, really therapeutic to get out there and get away from it all. I find it really beautiful and serene."

Those behind Take a Child Outside Week hope that other children, and their parents, discover exactly what Burroughs has found.

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