Working to Build Bridges in Greater Cincinnati

Orion Online – May 01, 2007
By Betsy Townsend

Working to Build Bridges in Greater Cincinnati

Several people have asked about Leave No Child Inside -- Greater Cincinnati. In June 2006, a number of local nature organizations came together to form a collaborative with the purpose of educating the community about the importance of unstructured play in nature to healthy childhood development. The collaborative was directly inspired by Richard Louv's book (Last Child in the Woods: Saving Our Children from Nature-Deficit Disorder) and the research he collected.

As a new organization, we are still evolving, but we came to realize that in order to effect real social change, we need to engage the community. In some cases, getting children back into unstructured play in nature is as simple as saying "go outside and play," just as my mother said to me back in the 1950s. However, the majority of today's families do not fit the 1950s mold. Many are single parent households, and the majority of two-parent households have two working parents. So, getting children outside on a regular basis is not as simple as it once was.

Issues like safety, transportation and fear of litigation are all obstacles in many cases. Although still in the formative stages, our approach is to look at making connections between individuals and organizations in the community, and nature facilities and programs.

The nature organizations in our collaborative are reviewing their programs and facilities to see how they might encourage more unstructured play. We are meeting with community groups, including health collaboratives and schools, to see what opportunities exist for joint ventures. Can we reintroduce nature programs (which have been largely eliminated) in school curricula? Can we form alliances with preschools and day-care centers that will encourage them to make use of local green spaces? Can we create "train the trainer" courses so their staffs will feel comfortable taking the children into nature for play activities? How can we make the most effective use of the limited dollars available?

For example, can joint ventures be created with health collaboratives so local parks and nature centers become involved in the "activity" portion of their nutrition/activity message? How can we engage all community groups in the process to get children outside and make efficient use of limited resources? For example, can scouts serve as volunteers for some of the opportunities, providing LNC with manpower and the scouts with learning and service opportunities?

In other words, how do we tap into existing facilities, programs and organizations to maximize impact and make the best use of resources for a win/win result?

When you begin to think about integrating this message into organizations already involved in health and education initiatives, the challenge becomes much more manageable. Although we have only just begun this process, the reception we have had from all has been extremely positive. In fact, we have had zero objections from any group we have approached. Our experience has been that people instinctively know that nature deficit is a problem. In fact, even physicians, who want hard research to make recommendations to their patients, will readily admit their personal belief in its existence.

We have a group of physicians here who have agreed to put together corollary evidence: For example, there may be no research to say that nature is important to healthy muscle development, but there is evidence that shows that walking on uneven ground develops healthy leg muscles and improves a sense of balance. A nature trail is uneven ground; therefore, walking on nature trails develops healthy leg muscles and improves balance.

All of us have an opportunity to raise awareness about the importance of this issue. Churches readily see the importance of the "sense of awe" Richard Louv describes. Schools and teachers, in our experience, would love to see nature programming come back into the schools. Most parents do want what's best for their children -- they need the information to help them make decision. Doctors are desperate to solve the childhood-obesity problem. City governments see that supporting local parks and recreation centers can actually be a cheap solution to a looming budget crisis that may follow a runaway obesity epidemic.

I encourage all of you to start talking about this, whenever and wherever you can. There is a lot of "low hanging fruit" out there. We can begin to make an immediate change in the way our children live. Adapted from Betsy Townsend’s posting on Talk to Orion. Her response was part of an online discussion in Orion magazine linked to an article by C&NN Chairman Richard Louv, titled Leave No Child Inside.

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