• author
    • Dave Van Manen

    • October 16, 2013 in Columnists

    Kids need nature

    There was a child went forth every day;
    And the first object he look’d upon, that object he became;
    And the object became part of him for the day, or a certain part of the day,or for many years, or stretching cycles of years.
    ~Walt Whitman

    I grew up in New York City. My house was in Queens, and I walked every day the four blocks to my K-8 grade school, which was in Brooklyn. I was definitely a city kid. But, like most kids when I was young, if I wasn’t in school, or inside eating or sleeping, I was outside. I played stick ball and touch football, I got dirty in our postage stamp backyard, I climbed the trees along Grove Street, I played in a nearby vacant lot. Sure, I watched some television – Bewitched, My Three Sons, Bonanza – but TV was evening entertainment, and an activity my parents wisely limited. Mostly, I was outside.

    Having spent all of my adult life working with kids – as a music teacher, children’s musician, outdoor educator, and as a parent and grandparent – I’ve been a keen observer of how things have changed for kids through the years. Much research confirms my observation that many of today’s children are largely disconnected from the outside world, the natural world.

    We’ve all heard about the many maladies that increasingly impact children today, such as obesity and attention disorders. We’ve all read about and observed that today’s children are plugged in – computer games, texting, Facebook… A 2010 Kaiser Foundation study found that young people spend nearly every out-of-school minute interacting with some electronic device. This technology certainly has its upside, but it also has a huge downside. Taking kids away from the outside world is one of its major downsides.

    As a nature educator, I have always said that seeing the natural world on a screen is a very poor substitute for experiencing the natural world first hand. Sure, technology provides a form of exposure to lots of places and creatures that most of us would never get to see. But, I’m sorry, seeing nature on a computer or television screen while sitting on your bottom in a climate controlled indoor space is not experiencing nature.

    Hands down, I believe that a simple stroll through a natural area of a park, or a short hike on a gentle trail, with plenty of time to just explore, will have many times the positive and lasting impact on children than dozens of nature shows on television. They will move their bodies, feel the sun on their sweaty backs and the cool wind on their faces, they will hear crickets and discover a deer track and listen to the wind in the trees – they will experience nature the way children have always experienced nature, until lately, when technology changed their world. And they will experience what research is proving is some of the best defense against obesity, attention disorders, and other troubles.

    Parents, grandparents, teachers, school administrators, youth organizations – all can do their part in helping our young people unplug and get outside. Take them to a nature center, visit a zoo, explore the back yard. Then, on some days at least, our children will go forth and objects like trees, or birds, or deer will become a part of them for a day, or for many years – and they will get a break from seeing and becoming Smartphones, or computer games, or television screens.

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