Feature Article - January 2008
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A Greener Future

Recreation's Push to Address 'Nature Deficit Disorder'

By Dawn Klingensmith

back-to-nature movement to acquaint today's obesity-prone, technology-obsessed youth with the outdoors and the environment as a whole is gaining momentum nationwide. Calling for a "child-nature reunion," the 2005 book Last Child in the Woods: Saving Our Children from Nature Deficit Disorder by Richard Louv points to kids' sedentary, indoor lifestyle as a cause of the childhood obesity epidemic and cites studies that suggest engaging with nature reduces kids' loneliness, depression and inability to concentrate. In its wake came the proposed No Child Left Inside Act of 2007, introduced in both Congressional houses in October, which would provide funding for environmental education in public schools.

It's not surprising, then, that Recreation Management's 2007 State of the Industry Report found that developing environmental education programs was a top priority among parks and recreation departments. More than 10 percent said they are planning to add such programming over the next three years.

To the extent that environmental education programs get kids moving in the outdoors, these initiatives could go a long way toward improving kids' physical and mental health. But kids' wellbeing isn't the only reason parks and recreation managers cite in their push to incorporate environmental education into their programming. The planet's well-being also is at stake.

Education Leads to Action

In a letter requesting funding to hire staff to develop environmental educational programs, Bill Hellwig, director of the Audrey Moore RECenter at Wakefield Park in Annandale, Va., stated: "As our population increases and our natural resources continue to be stressed, it is important to educate our youth on the role they play and changes that can be made now. Our parks are the ideal setting to develop that understanding. We have streams, trails, wildlife, trees and meadows with staff trained to respect nature and the effect humans have on the environment. We can teach our youth to be better stewards of our resources; they will become our future park users and advocates."

Hellwig's last sentence reveals yet another compelling reason for park managers in particular to develop environmental educational programming. If the national park system's attendance rates are any indication, the well-being of parks in general might depend on a renewed appreciation of what nature has to offer. Attendance at national parks has dropped in six of the past seven years, from 287 million in 1999 to 273 million in 2006.

Widely regarded as a possible remedy for "nature deficit disorder," environmental education overlaps the separate but related outdoor education movement, which shares similar aims. Simply put, outdoor education refers to organized learning that takes place outside. Both movements seek to foster an appreciation of nature. Ultimately, the goal of environmental education is to foster an awareness of environmental issues and problems, modify behaviors that exacerbate those problems, and develop the motivation and skills to solve them.