Feature Article - September 2011
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Going Off Trail

New Paths in Programming to Connect Children With Nature

By Kelli Anderson

Nature Deficit Disorder

Largely beginning with Richard Louv's clarion call about the harmful effects of children's increasing estrangement from nature in his book, Last Child in the Woods, the nation has since seen a proliferation of conferences on the topic, while many states have adopted initiatives like No Child Left Indoors and designers, consultants and think tanks like the Natural Learning Initiative out of the NC University College of Design, are in ever-increasing demand.

For those once skeptical of what Louv coined "nature deficit disorder," there is now an abundance of research, such as that conducted by Dr. Frances E. Ming Kuo of the University of Illinois in Champaign-Urbana, demonstrating a link between less access to nature and greater ADHD symptoms, higher rates of clinical depression, stress, anxiety and other physiological problems. Conversely, those with greater access to their natural surroundings demonstrated better cognitive functions, more self-discipline and impulse control, and greater overall mental health.

Children, however, are not the only casualties in this crisis. With the children of today becoming the taxpayers of tomorrow, there is growing concern that conservation and environmental protection are in the crosshairs if the current situation does not change. Providing an emotional connection to nature seems to be offering a solution.

Authentic Experience

"Whatever we do, we always try to make sure children have an authentic nature experience to draw them in," said Lauren Stayer, education assistant with the Five Rivers MetroParks in Dayton, Ohio. "Children get out in a creek and catch a crawdad or catch a butterfly in a net and they see how cool that is. They walk away eager to come back. Authentic experiences are so key." According to Stayer, such experiences are greatly responsible for what has made their facility and its programs a household name and well supported by the taxpayers of their community.

And research certainly bears that fact out, with nature centers particularly appreciating the need to create an emotional bond as an underpinning to learning and support. "In the last 30 years, research keeps coming up with the result that the most common influence on lifelong conservation is frequent, non-structured play," said Ken Finch, president of Green Hearts Inc. a nonprofit conservation organization promoting bonds between children and nature, based in Omaha, Neb. Emphasizing that emotional connection is often a byproduct of unstructured play, Finch concluded, "If our children are losing that frequent play, the implications for long-term conservation are terrible."

With such rivals for attention as air-conditioning, the comforts of the couch and video technology enticing America's children to stay indoors (and the magnified fears of stranger danger and things that crawl or go "hoot" in the night), facilities like those at Five Rivers have had their work cut out for them.

Tike Hikes, however, is just one of the programs they have developed that is meeting with great success. Unlike the traditional programs (which they also offer) with indoor crafts, snack times and more structured play, Tike Hikes get the children and their parents out to experience nature and are not only more fun, but even more economical as well.

A Tike Hike craft, for example, might include planting a flower that requires fewer resources than the indoor programs and is more flexible when unregistered families drop in for an impromptu experience. "Parents love the program," Stayer said. "We have anywhere from 60 to 70 people at a time. We can reach more people and it doesn't cost anything because it's only paying for my time."