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Discovering a growing nature deficit in our children’s lives

While today’s kids are well aware of the global threats to our environment, their actual physical contact, their intimacy with nature on a day-to-day basis, is rapidly fading.

Every now and again, a bold, new idea comes my way. I found out about one such idea at a “Gathering of the Eagles” at a recent lunch meeting in St. Paul. The Eagle Scout designation is the highest rank in the Boy Scouts of America; there are some 22,000 Eagle Scouts living in the Twin Cities region.

Chuck Slocum

While today’s kids are well aware of the global threats to our environment, their actual physical contact, their intimacy with nature on a day-to-day basis, is rapidly fading. One young child said to an interviewer: “I like to play indoors better because that’s where all the electrical outlets are.”

Some parents and others in the older generations, when made aware of this nature-less lifestyle change, are coming to sense its importance. When asked about it, they cite a number of everyday reasons why young children spend less time in nature than they themselves did, the most important one was a fear of “stranger-danger,” as round-the-clock news coverage conditions the public to believe in an epidemic of child-snatchings, despite crime statistics that demonstrate the actual number has been falling for at least 20 years.

Other factors include disappearing access to natural areas, dangerously congested traffic, competition from television, computers, the social media, more homework and too busily organized sports and other activities.

We know we can not bring back the free-range childhood so many of us baby boomers experienced in the 1950-’60s, nor would such a thing make much sense. But in the world of today’s children, limitless in cyberspace, we can quantify a significantly shrinking awareness of our outdoors.

The benefits are many, and varied

The good news is that pioneering new studies have recently concluded that connections to the healing properties of nature help protect the psychological well-being of children and the rest of us, too.

Some of the most intriguing studies are being done by the Human-Environment Research Laboratory at the University of Illinois, where researchers have discovered that children as young as 5 showed a significant reduction in the symptoms of Attention-Deficit Disorder when they engaged with nature.

Dramatic increases in childhood obesity that now affect one-in-four very young children is further evidence of the need for healthy, out-of-doors activity. The growing nature deficit experienced by many of today’s children — potentially for generations go come —  may well be one important common denominator, combined with diet and exercise.

‘Nature-deficit disorder’

One advocate who spoke at our luncheon, a father of a 9-year-old boy and 13-year-old girl, recommended to the Eagles that we become more active as mentors after we read the book by Richard Louv entitled  “Last Child in the Woods: Saving Our Children From Nature-Deficit Disorder.”

Parents, educators, policymakers and the public can do their homework and then thoughtfully develop a strategy with groups like the Boy Scouts and other kids-centered organizations to join in forcefully addressing the nature-deficit issue.

If the growing divide between children and nature continues, we’ll all pay a price.

Chuck Slocum (Chuck@WillistonGroup.Com) is a management consultant based in Minnetonka.


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Comments (2)

  1. Submitted by jody rooney on 06/20/2013 - 12:01 pm.

    Awesome image and great content

    One of the things that might be considered is that a DNR research report has identified that State Parks do little to serve young children and older people. That is not to say that State Parks should change, the can’t be all things to all people. I would love to horseback ride in more of the state parks particularly the ones that are significantly underused but some of them are too fragile.

    This is where the role of regional parks comes in. Not just in the metro area but in greater Minnesota. These parks may not be large which would suit both younger children and the elderly but provide a more secure landscape for exploration.

    I would suggest in the interim the Tamarack Nature Center as a good introduction.

  2. Submitted by Scott Slocum on 04/25/2014 - 01:48 pm.

    Trapping stranger-danger

    In our suburban neighborhood–with a broad marshland behind our homes–young children spend less time in nature partly because their parents tell them not to go out there. It’s another form of “stranger-danger,” it’s hidden, unposted, and generally unreported; and it’s there around-the-clock and year around wherever anyone might decide to trap–for protected animals in season or unprotected animals anytime. It’s careless trapping and snaring.

    More outdoor recreationists with dogs find out the hard way every year, when they find their dogs in pain, dying, or dead in lethal traps and snares in unexpected places on publicly-accessible lands.

    We’ve learned that we can’t depend on trapping ethics, so we’re calling for reasonable trapping regulations.

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