Project-Based Learning (PBL)

Take a Hike: How to Make Being Outdoors In

As gaming devices supplant games of catch, schools counter nature-deficit disorder with outdoor experiences.

March 1, 2006

Though his parents once lived in the countryside in Mexico, Juan Martinez grew up in crowded Los Angeles, barely noticing the earth and sky that was masked by the concrete and smog. Six years ago, when Martinez was 15, his science teacher proposed that he earn extra credit and raise his failing grade by joining the school’s ecology club. He liked working in the school garden, which led to a trip to Teton Science Schools, in Wyoming’s Grand Teton National Park. It changed his life.

“Just to be able to see a fresh stream—not the L.A. Aqueduct, but to see an actual stream with fish in it—to actually see the stars was magic,” Martinez says. “This happened at a moment in my life when I needed something to motivate me.” Today, he leads overnight camping trips for nature-deprived Los Angeles teens and helps them restore their neighborhood parks, even as he studies to become an environmental lawyer. “I can’t live without nature,” he says. “I’ve got to have it in my life.”

Nature is exactly what’s missing from the lives of many urban and suburban and even rural American children and teens, according to San Diego journalist Richard Louv. In his book Last Child in the Woods: Saving Our Children From Nature-Deficit Disorder, Louv presents evidence that American children are losing a vital aspect of healthy development as they spend increasingly less time riding bikes, climbing trees, fishing, or doing much of anything outdoors.

Louv notes a number of trends that have converged over decades to create the modern indoor-centric family: Residential development patterns have consumed the bits of forest and empty lots where young baby boomers used to meet and play. Ubiquitous air-conditioning has made homes into comfort cocoons. As more parents have gone to work, they have enrolled their children in supervised after-school programs, many of them conducted indoors.

“The average child 30 years ago was spending four to five hours a day outdoors, while the child today is spending almost all that time inside—including nearly six and a half hours a day with electronics,” says Kevin Coyle, vice president for education at the National Wildlife Federation. Recently, Mike Lee, director of community programs for the Golden Gate National Parks Conservancy, based in San Francisco, discovered that children of agricultural workers in nearby Monterey County had never seen the ocean, located a mile from their homes.

“It’s not just that the outdoors is uncool” to kids who prize gaming devices over games of catch, says Martin LeBlanc, national youth director of the Sierra Club. “It’s that it doesn’t exist for them.” And the unknown is scary. When teens from many of Chicago’s 31 Boys and Girls Clubs took an overnight trip to the Indiana Dunes National Lakeshore last fall, many feared going on a night hike and encountering critters in the dark. But fear turned to thrills as the teens used touch, smell, and hearing to poke their way along a trail lit only by moonlight, trip leader Angela Zirles recalls.

As families have increasingly stayed inside in recent decades, behavioral scientists have shown that children and teens are less stressed, and physically and emotionally healthier, when they are regularly exposed to nature. Scientists at Cornell University found that children who have more contact with nature—even a view of something green from their bedrooms—experience less stress than those with less contact. At the University of Illinois, scientists found that children as young as 5 who engaged with plants and nature showed reduced signs of attention deficit hyperactivity disorder.

Credit: Mark Todd

Outside Influence

Pediatricians warn parents that low academic achievement and obesity are linked to hours spent indoors watching television. Louv says he has been “bombarded” by emails from parents who agree that their kids are nature deprived, and who vow to send them out to play.

Kathy Lineberger, a third-grade teacher at Marvin Ward Elementary School in suburban Winston-Salem, North Carolina, doesn’t need to see studies to conclude that children learn better when they get exercise and fresh air. Lineberger and her fellow teachers raised money from local businesses and the National Science Foundation to create a wildlife preserve and nature trail behind their 5-year-old school. Every Wednesday, Lineberger lets her students spend 20 minutes scampering on the trail. Then she puts them to work counting animal tracks, or trying to see the boggy woods through the eyes of nature lover Lady Bird Johnson, whose biography they recently read.

“Kids who are sick on Tuesday and are sick on Thursday are not sick on Wednesday, because that is nature-trail day,” Lineberger says. When they return to the classroom to write in their journals, she adds, “they are much more settled. I know it calms them, because I see it.”

Louv’s invention of the term nature-deficit disorder, he says, “got a national conversation started.” Large national environmental organizations, kept afloat by a graying corps of backers, are mounting efforts to entice their future constituents—children and teens—out of doors. Schools are developing on-site gardens and wildlife habitats where students learn hands-on science, and parents are bucking the indoor trend, household by household.

The National Wildlife Federation hopes to convince parents to embrace the “green hour,” a period a day each child should spend outside. Later this year, the organization hopes to post an online calendar featuring 1,000 ideas for seasonal and age-varied activities that parents can suggest to children who say there’s nothing to do out there.

Through its Building Bridges to the Outdoors initiative, the Sierra Club partners with youth organizations, nature clubs, and juvenile-justice officers in California, New Mexico, and Washington to sponsor outdoor educational experiences for teens. When they return to their towns, the youths stay active with outdoor-education programs and service projects, such as restoring trails in local parks. The organization’s Martin LeBlanc says the traditional field trip approach—sending kids once a year to camp overnight or to see a waterfall—won’t alter anyone’s lifestyle or reduce anyone’s stress. “To send kids to Yosemite, then throw them back into their communities with no follow-up, makes it a surreal experience,” LeBlanc says. “It doesn’t give them the building blocks to help them academically or with self-esteem.”

The Urban Ecology Center, in Milwaukee, is designed around a similar premise: Children gain the most appreciation for nature from constant contact with it. The inner city wooded acreage on the bank of the Milwaukee River serves only schools within a two-mile radius, so students can make short trips often and at odd hours for events such as dawn bird banding. The center stays open on evenings and weekends so kids can bring their families to sled or climb rocks. Executive director Ken Leinbach says, “Our objective is to maximize kids’ contact with one limited piece of nature.” He believes the center, which for many years did business from a trailer, can be replicated in any city with a patch of land. “Now we need a longitudinal study to prove that we’re having the impact on kids that we think we are.”

Other model school programs range from a simple and inexpensive bird feeder experiment, begun in a blue-collar suburb of Houston, to the elaborate fish hatchery and wildlife-tracking program at Cuba Rushford Central High School, in western New York.

At Oak Forest Elementary School in Humble, Texas, a reading teacher asked a friend, bird-watcher Damien Carey, to put up a few feeders at school and show her reluctant readers how to keep them stocked with seeds. The bird tenders improved so much in both schoolwork and behavior that Carey volunteered to host a fifth-grade nature club. Then he pulled in retired friends to help students plant a vegetable garden. Now, other classes are replanting the edge of the school playground with native trees and other plants. Still more students tend the butterfly and hummingbird gardens they planted. “We’ve pulled practically the whole school into the nature experience” with just a few thousand dollars in contributions from volunteers’ former employers, Carey says.

Come Out and Learn

At Cuba Rushford, science teacher Scott Jordan has secured nearly $400,000 in private and government grants to build a student-run fish hatchery with underwater observation cameras, a one-acre research pond, a reclaimed wetland with an observation platform for watching migratory waterfowl, and a log building where students work on projects to tag and track deer and wild turkeys. Not every school will be so ambitious, but organizations such as the nonprofit Environmental Literacy Council can help teachers attain wildlife-tracking software. “And students could do this even in cities,” Jordan said. “You could put a transmitter on a rat or a cat.”

Here and there, parents also fight to reclaim the freedom they knew as outdoor kids. One reason writer Gabrielle Glaser, an Oregon native, was eager to move her family of five to Portland, Oregon, from affluent Westchester County, New York, was that they had to drive for hours to get to the beach or a ski resort. And during the family’s first week in their Portland home three years ago, neighborhood children rang the doorbell and asked Glaser’s grade-school daughters to come out and play hide-and-seek. “I almost fell over in a dead faint,” she says.

When Glaser’s older daughter, Ilana (now 13), first heard that her new public school, SunnySide Environmental School, would require her to spend at least eight hours a year gardening, “you could have felt the wind coming off her eye rolls,” Glaser says. But the combination elementary and middle school integrates camping, planting, collecting river-water samples, and other nature activities into every part of the curriculum. Now, gardening is something Ilana loves, her mother says, “because she does it with her friends.”

But there are still attitudes left to change. Remember that nature trail in Winston-Salem? Custodians covered it with cedar chips so it would be easier to clean. “It broke my heart,” teacher Kathy Lineberger says, because the students could no longer see where deer and raccoons had walked before them. Then she confessed: Lately, she’s been taking her third graders to look for deer tracks off the trail, where the outdoors is just as filthy as ever.

Susan Brenna is a freelance journalist based in Brooklyn, New York, an adjunct professor of journalism at the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism, and senior editorial consultant to the Casey Journalism Center on Children and Families.

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