People want to do what’s right for children. With that in mind, the Children & Nature Network has compiled an impressive set of research studies on what’s best for their healthy development. One major conclusion was no surprise to us: Nature is good for kids.
Why has something that seems so obvious become a big deal? When I was growing up in rural Minnesota, kids like me ruled the woods, fields, and streams. We hunted for birds, frogs, and fish. We built forts and tree houses. We connected to nature and, in turn, learned to care about the environment. For most people of my generation, caring about the environment became a lifelong avocation. For me, it also became a career.
The world has changed since then. Children of the digital age have become increasingly disconnected from direct experiences in nature, for many reasons. There’s the seductive pull of computers, TVs, and iPods. Overworked parents have less time for children’s outings, and parents fear for their kids’ safety if they go wandering around alone. Schools, churches, and after-school programs increasingly emphasize indoor activities. When I was growing up, roaming around outdoors was fun and encouraged. Now nature is often perceived as a dangerous place.
Researchers are reporting a growing body of evidence correlating this decrease in outdoor activity with increases in attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder, depression, obesity, and diabetes in children. In addition to these health consequences, I worry about where our next generation of conservation leaders will come from. If children grow up fearing nature, will they ever care enough to protect it?
Best-selling author Richard Louv coined the phrase nature-deficit disorder in his book Last Child in the Woods. He has since cofounded the Children & Nature Network to help address the issue by linking concerned educators, researchers, and others to the “latest research and practical advice about children’s health and well-being.”
Audubon recognized this trend more than a decade ago. In response we launched a major initiative to establish a national network of community-based Audubon Centers, where children and families can have safe and easy access to outdoor activities in nature close to home. We now have more than 50 Centers in our network. Many are located in inner-city areas—including Los Angeles, New York, Seattle, Baltimore, Dallas, San Antonio, and Columbus, Ohio—where children have the least access to nature. Others are located in smaller communities, such as Holly Springs, Mississippi; Brownsville, Texas; Dayton, Ohio; Kearney, Nebraska; and Joplin, Missouri , where our newest Center just opened.
These Centers now serve more than a million visitors annually. Much more is needed to address nature-deficit disorder, but it’s a start. To learn more about Audubon's nautre centers, go to Audubon.org.—John Flicker