I packed my son and his third grade class onto a bus and off to the Marin Headlands this morning, for three days and two nights of Outdoor Education - a program paid for at their public school by parents and the PTA.
At night they'll sleep in a youth hostel. During the day they'll hike (a lot), play (a lot), and - guided by nature docents - learn (a lot) about the natural environment in which they live.
For many of these kids though, they might just as well be on another planet.
A 2001 University of Chicago study found that the average American kid spends only 25 minutes a week involved in unstructured play outdoors. That's only 4 minutes a day playing on their own outside!
San Francisco is not your typical concrete jungle. It's an urban city bordered by a bay, an ocean, and a good deal of undeveloped and protected natural habitats. It takes only 20 minutes to get from downtown SF, to a forest, beach or coastal environment.
Sadly though, easy access doesn't necessarily translate into opportunity. Only a handful of the kids in my son's class have ever experienced more than an hour or two exploring or playing in the "wilderness."
It's a national trend which been going on for some time now, evidenced partially by National Parks Service figures showing park attendance falling 17 percent between 1995 and 2005.
The alarm was sounded however, by San Diego journalist Richard Louv, whose 2005 book, Last Child in the Woods, created some much needed discussion about what he called "nature deficit disorder" in America's kids. The now classic line from the book comes from a fourth grader, who says he likes to play inside because that's where all the electrical outlets are.
Louv is now helping coordinate a grassroots movement he only half jokingly calls No Child Left Inside. He sees political perceptions falling by the wayside - as both conservative and liberal groups band together to get kids back outside and in touch with nature.
For instance, The Sierra Club
has given a $1.1 million dollar grant to the National Military Families
Association for its Operation Purple Camp, sending children of
active service members to camp for a week - for free.
Last week the U.S. Forest Service, launched a $1.5 million "More Kids in the Woods" challenge to "help remedy the disconnect between nature and children."
The National Wildlife Federation has introduced a new website called GreenHour.org, aimed at inspiring kids and adults to get outside and experience the world of nature. As Kevin Coyle, the NWF's education director recently told The Economist magazine, environmental groups feel a sense of urgency. “There won't be a conservation movement 30 years from now if there's no love for nature,” Coyle says.
You can also learn lots more on this issue, by listening to or downloading this recent one-hour Forum program featuring Richard Louv, on KQED.org.
Since having kids, I've learned that in these over-scheduled hectic times, getting kids outdoors takes some work. But the rewards are huge. I've done it daily since the kids were born, and continue to get the gang outside as regularly as possible these days - as much for my own mental and physical health as for that of my children.
Have you, or your kids, fallen out of touch with nature? Or do you have some advice about getting people off their butts and back outside? Click below on "Comments" and share your story or your advice.
Sit beside a mountain stream--see her waters rise
Listen to the pretty sound of music as she flies.
Find me in my field of grass--Mother Nature's son
Swaying daises sing a lazy song beneath the sun.
Mother Nature's son.