If, as Henry David Thoreau said, we go to the woods so that when we die we suddenly realize we had not lived, then diverting ourselves and our offspring from nature cheats them of a part of the essence of living.
Many of you kind folks responded with heartfelt empathy about "No Child Left Indoors" in Friday’s column.
The University of Montana runs on ECOS program, Ecologists, Educators, and Schools, where grad and undergrad students work with elementary and secondary schools to bring kids into nature. A highly successful program, it still surprised me that Montana, of all places, finds a need for it: Truly the last great wild place in the lower 48. The Missoulian got quotes from some of the kids who participated in the ECOS activities, and some of the more interesting were:
"Is bees! It has been very fun studying bees. (And other insects!) I love insects! But the most amazing thing I saw was a bee collecting nectar from a flower. A bee has a very special mouth part that helps him get the nectar."
"Insects! I love looking at insects in our Outdoor Discovery Core (and at home)! It is so nice to look at ladybugs, beetles, strange looking bugs, caterpillars and all the different kinds of insects! They are very interesting. One day I found this strange bug. It was green, with a triangle head, oval body, with a line that separated its wings. I have found all kinds of insects (ladybugs, beetles, even a dead beetle in our garage, but it was too dry.)"
"Have you ever turned over a rock in a stream to see little bugs doing their thing. Well I have. Some aquatic insects march. They build little houses and they even swim away like a mini speed boat or a fish. They will float, float, float."
"The food chain to me: An eagle eats a skunk, then a skunk eats a turtle, then a turtle eats a fish, a fish eats frog's eggs, then a frog's egg turns into a frog which eats worms, then the worm eats dirt, and dirt isn't alive. There's the food chain for you."
These children uncovered a world they didn’t know existed. It may be hard for you and I to imagine being in elementary school and never noticing a bee collecting nectar, but that’s the world so terribly many of these kids live in. One particular kid was so moved by a sapling tree she was reduced to tears:
"I see a tree. It is only 3 feet tall. It is in the schoolyard. There are three banana-colored leaves getting bossed around by the wind. When the leaves sing, a tear falls from my eye, and then I start to cry."
Some states are doing something proactive about the little-known problem already. USA Today reports:
– A Junior Ranger program, in which kids earn badges by completing activities at national parks, is opening Friday at Fort Clatsop in Oregon. Nearly 300 national parks have programs for kids 5 and older.
– The National Wildlife Federation is launching "The Green Hour" website in March to give parents fun suggestions for outdoor activities with their children.
– The National Audubon Society, which has opened 30 nature centers in the past decade, will launch a new one this spring in Savannah, N.Y., and has plans for a dozen more in the next few years. Most serve elementary school kids.
– Wonderful Outdoor World, a group that gets public and private funds for programs for disadvantaged urban children, plans to expand its outdoor camping trips beyond its current six metropolitan areas next year.
– Connecticut launched a No Child Left Inside program in March with a scavenger hunt in eight state parks that attracted hundreds of families. Texas began a public-awareness push, dubbed Life's Better Outside, last year. Washington Gov. Chris Gregoire signed a bill in March to study how outdoor education affects academic success and personal responsibility.
– The U.S. Forest Service is launching a pilot program, More Kids In the Woods, that will fund local efforts to get children outdoors. It is the service's first full-scale program targeting kids, says Jim Bedwell, national director of recreation and heritage resources.
In 2007, the United States Congress passed by overwhelming majority the No Child Left Inside Act which;
– Provides federal funding to states to train teachers in environmental education and to operate model environmental education programs, which include outdoor learning.
– Provides funding to states that create environmental literacy plans to ensure that high school graduates are environmentally literate.
– Provides funding through an environmental education grant program to build state and national capacity.
– Re-establishes the Office of Environmental Education within the U.S. Department of Education.
Richard Louv, author of Last Child In The Woods recalls that, "As a boy, I pulled out dozens—perhaps hundreds—of survey stakes in a vain effort to slow the bulldozers that were taking out my woods to make way for a new subdivision. Had I known then what I’ve since learned from a developer, that I should have simply moved the stakes around to be more effective, I would surely have done that too."
Louv noted in his many, many interviews that adults who were deadset against letting their children play in a field or woods or near a creek were at odds with their own memories of doing exactly the same, often with dramatic changes of heart:
"We do know that when people talk about the disconnect between children and nature—if they are old enough to remember a time when outdoor play was the norm—they almost always tell stories about their own childhoods: this tree house or fort, that special woods or ditch or creek or meadow. They recall those ‘places of initiation,’ in the words of naturalist Bob Pyle, where they may have first sensed with awe and wonder the largeness of the world seen and unseen. When people share these stories, their cultural, political, and religious walls come tumbling down."
Without blinking an eye, Louv charges the educational system with contributing to the disconnect from the natural world in children.
"For example, the current, test-centric definition of education reform. Bring unlike-minded people through the doorway to talk about the effect of society’s nature-deficit on child development, and pretty soon they’ll be asking hard questions: Just why have school districts canceled field trips and recess and environmental education? And why doesn’t our school have windows that open and natural light? At a deeper level, when we challenge schools to incorporate place-based learning in the natural world, we will help students realize that school isn’t supposed to be a polite form of incarceration, but a portal to the wider world."
The hard, unbelievable truth of it all is supported by the studies done by commercial entities, fearing for their futures if sales of outdoors related goods continue to drop. Since government is conducting few, if any, such studies, they took it upon themselves.
The results are horrifying, Louv points out:
"In a typical week, only 6 percent of children ages nine to thirteen play outside on their own. Studies by the National Sporting Goods Association and by American Sports Data, a research firm, show a dramatic decline in the past decade in such outdoor activities as swimming and fishing. Even bike riding is down 31 percent since 1995. In San Diego, according to a survey by the nonprofit Aquatic Adventures, 90 percent of inner-city kids do not know how to swim; 34 percent have never been to the beach."
If this isn’t a wake-up call, I don’t know what is:
"In suburban Fort Collins, Colorado, teachers shake their heads in dismay when they describe the many students who have never been to the mountains visible year-round on the western horizon."
So we turn back to Thoreau, and his seclusion in the woods. Sadly, folks in pleated dress pants and immaculately-pressed white shirts, wearing sensible shoes that shine like new pennies, wearing glasses that provide only narrow slits of a view into their world, have dismissed Thoreau as a kook. A hermit recluse who should be laughed at, not regarded.
But if Thoreau went to the woods to learn what it had to teach, and to find that he had, in fact, lived after all…he teaches us in return that those revelations are not available under artificial light and concrete buildings. We are creatures of the outside, for the past 100 million years of our existence. We act today more like cavemen than our long-armed ancestors. We need to return to the sun, and take our offspring with us.