“There are some who can live without wild things, and some who cannot,” wrote Aldo Leopold in the 1949 foreword of “A Sand County Almanac.”
Many today — especially children — not only need to live with wild things, but may actually grow healthier if they do. Patricia Miller, aquatic program coordinator for Region 2 of the Tennessee Wildlife Resources Agency in Nashville, recently expressed serious concern for today’s children who stay inside so much because of increased technological diversions.
Urban planners and others who see growing health problems in children like obesity, depression and attention deficit disorder (ADD) share Miller’s concern.
“We don’t have enough green space making more opportunities for kids outdoors,” Miller said. “They need to get (outside) by age 11. They need access, to be able to bike and walk to a natural area.” Because nature “always changes,” Miller explained, much variety and beauty can be enjoyed outside.
“I see children being afraid to go outdoors,” said Miller. “Their parents are afraid of sending them. The fear is out of proportion to what is realistic.”
Carolyn Ingram, an advocate of recess for children and principal at Yates Elementary School, said research supports the importance of recess for young children, who are better behaved and receive better grades when they get such sessions.
“Children need to move around in free play and experience time for sharing,” said Ingram who distinguishes recess and outdoors recreation from gym classes, which she calls “organized play.”
While there are some risks to playing outside, Miller related that more people, especially children and parents, fear the outdoors because of “overblown” reports of stranger danger, diseases and other frequently reported troubles.
Miller said to fight fears of the outdoors, parents can use the “buddy system” where children play or go outside with at least one other friend (or parent). There is also playing outside as a group. She related a story of one neighborhood where children playing together brought a neighborhood together into a “nature club.”
The TWRA aquatic education coordinator said too much fear can work against children. One lost child, she commented, avoided rescue workers because of stranger fright.
Miller added that most child abductions involve someone known to the child, not a stranger. Still, she recommends going outdoors with a friend or group of friends to feel safer.
When children stay inside too much, however, other problems arise like weight issues, decreased ability to focus or stay on-task as well as general malaise.
In his book “Last Child in the Woods: Saving Our Children from Nature-Deficit Disorder,” child advocate Richard Louv points out that “Nature-deficit disorder is not a medical condition; it is a description of the human costs of alienation from nature.” There are solutions, though, and they’re “right in our own backyards.”
In Louv’s book, the jacket cover quotes one fourth-grade child as saying, “I like to play indoors better ’cause that’s where all the electrical outlets are.”
Louv’s work also describes an encounter with one of his own children, who asked why past generations “had more fun” than current generations.
As a children’s advocate, Louv reveals startling facts about the lack of outdoor activity among today’s kids. By the 1990s, for instance, “the radius around the home where children were allowed to roam on their own had shrunk to a ninth of what it had been in 1970,” he said.
Additionally, Louv wrote the rate at which doctors prescribe antidepressants has increased and studies show that “too much computer use spells trouble for the developing mind.”
In an effort to encourage healthier development, Miller noted that May 2010 marked the first Tennessee Governor’s Summit on Every Child Outdoors effort.
A website about the event, held at Montgomery Bell State Park in Burns, Tenn., said some 160 citizens, state agencies and nonprofit organizations collaborated to discuss the symptoms and consequences of children’s “disconnect” from nature, along with strategies and methods for reconnecting kids to the outdoors.
The TWRA, along with church and civic groups, sponsors and conducts many back-to-nature events such as “Free Fishing Days.”
“It’s a good day of getting them out fishing,” Miller said. She also mentioned websites where parents can find more information about these and other events in the natural world. They include tnwildlife.org, childrenin-nature.org and greenheart.org.
The Green Heart site stated: “Nature play is now an endangered part of American childhood.” The organization’s purpose is to “help bring it back.”
Green Heart notes activities that can be enjoyed outside include walking in the woods, camping under the stars, visiting a farm, flying a kite or growing a garden.
“I think we are finally figuring out that there’s an incredible disconnect (with nature) because of technology,” Miller remarked. “We’ve missed the generation now. We need the next generation to care about our natural world. We need them to see a better way to live.”
She added that not many older children are choosing the natural resources profession these days. But, she hopes for change and emphasized that events such as symposiums for teachers, encouraging them to have class outside sometimes, are popular.
Miller spoke of a favorite quote about her passion for the outdoors, which began when she was a little girl going outside with her parents. It was a time she called redbirds “cardinals” because her mother did.
To sum up her concern for our earthly habitat and its inhabitants, Miller wrote down the words of African conservationist Baba Deioum of Senegal.
“In the end, we will conserve only what we love. We will love only what we understand. We will understand only what we are taught.”