For 20 years, Marcia Lyons worked in the education program at Cape Hatteras National Seashore as a nature interpreter, taking people on tours of native wildlife and plants to help them connect with the nature of the Outer Banks. Then, for a decade, Lyons took a position in the Seashore’s resource management department. But in summer 2006, she returned to her outdoor roots, again as a nature interpreter. One of the big changes she immediately found?
“With that 10-year hiatus of not dealing with children, I noticed we’re just not getting as many kids who like to get into the outdoors now,” says Lyons. “I’ve heard some rangers say that when they take kids out to the salt marshes, for instance, the kids seem to be more nervous, more timid.
“It’s definitely not across the board,” Lyons is quick to add. “There are still some kids who are real ‘earthy’ and just dive right in. But there are definitely more children today [versus 10 years ago] who are more timid about it all. The outdoors is totally new to them. Sometimes, they don’t even want to sit in the sand!”
“We get a lot of that,” admits Jennifer Thoburn, a ranger at Jockey’s Ridge State Park who leads various outdoors tours. “It’s frustrating sometimes. That’s one of the personal goals for each ranger here – to try to break through that attitude.”
But breaking through those attitudes of fear and discomfort over the outdoors isn’t terribly hard to do, both Thoburn and Lyons insist. If they actually have the opportunity to get outside, play in it, and learn about it, the two say, kids quickly realize the outdoors is a fun place to be.
At Jockey’s Ridge State Park, one such outdoors opportunity is the “Seine the Sound” program. This takes children and adults out into the shallow waters of Roanoke Sound, seine nets in hand, to scoop up all manner of small fish, blue crabs, and other tiny sea creatures. The morning’s “catch” is poured into clear buckets, and park rangers discuss these life forms and the sound’s ecosystem.
“It’s a really good feeling to watch a child go from standing behind his parents, to trying to push the other kids out of the way, he’s so eager to see what’s in the buckets,” says Thoburn. “Sometimes, just that 45 minutes [the program runs] makes a big difference with them and their attitudes about wildlife.”
Unfortunately, these kinds of direct, outdoors experiences are occurring less frequently among America’s children. The definitive study showing this trend doesn’t exist, but there are some indicators. For example, between 1990 and 2000, participation in hunting by youth between the ages of 12 and 17 dropped 26 percent, according to the Sporting Goods Manufacturer’s Association. Over that same period, the same age group experienced an 8 percent decline in freshwater fishing. Also, the Outdoor Industry Foundation found that participation in select outdoor activities such as backpacking, bicycling, and rock climbing by young adults between the ages of 16 and 24 dropped approximately 15 percent between 2004 and 2005.
Disconnected from the outdoors, the current generation may not see nature as something that should be enjoyed – or saved. Signs of this are already beginning to show. For instance, undergraduate enrollment in natural resource programs has dropped approximately 10 percent since the mid 1990s. One possible reason for this, Utah State University researchers note, is the “increasing disconnect between society, particularly young people, and natural resources.”
This lack of connection is the focal point of a book that’s gained a good deal of national attention, Last Child in the Woods: Saving Our Children from Nature-Deficit Disorder, by Richard Louv. Louv is a columnist for the San Diego Union-Tribune, and has written extensively about family and nature.
In Last Child, Louv writes, “Within the space of a few decades, the way children understand and experience nature has changed radically. …Today, kids are aware of the global threats to the environment – but their physical contact, their intimacy with nature, is fading. …A kid today can likely tell you about the Amazon rain forest – but not about the last time he or she explored the woods in solitude, or lay in a field listening to the wind and watching the clouds move.”
He cites a three-generation study of 9-year-olds, which found that the radius around the homes where these children were allowed to roam had shrunk by 90 percent from 1970 to 1990. Parents cited fears of everything from crime to air pollution.
When Louv argues that many American children suffer from a “nature-deficit disorder,” he isn’t suggesting an existing medical diagnosis. Rather, “Nature-deficit disorder describes the human costs of alienation from nature, among them; diminished use of the senses, attention difficulties, and higher rates of physical and emotional illnesses,” he writes.
Louv finds nature-deficit disorder manifested in numerous ways: the frightening rate of obesity among America’s children (the Centers for Disease Control finds two out of 10 children clinically obese today—a four-fold increase from the late 1960s); a general lack of unstructured play time, resulting in fewer interpersonal connections with other kids; and, overall, less emotional and spiritual health, compared to kids who regularly spend time outside.
So, what are today’s children up to? According to Louv, “In the United States, children ages 6 to 11 spend about 30 hours a week looking at a TV or computer monitor.” The Kaiser Family Foundation discovered that children are exposed to a staggering 60 hours per week of electronic media. Meanwhile, University of Michigan researchers have documented that today’s kids spend 20 percent more time on homework than they did in the 1980s. Participation in organized sports, indoors and out, has increased significantly, too.
Paul, a fourth-grader from San Diego, succinctly explained his view of outside recreation when he told Louv, “I like to play indoors better, ’cause that’s where all the electrical outlets are.”
Mark Buckler is the program coordinator for the Outer Banks Center for Wildlife Education, in Corolla. The center officially opened in June 2006, although it offered educational courses for several summers previously.
“Our mission is really to educate people about the wildlife and the natural resources that are found here in the coastal plain,” says Buckler. “Much of what we have on display and in exhibits is focused on the natural and cultural history of the area, as it pertains to water. So that can be anything from beach and dune ecology to decoy carving, to fishing and waterfowl hunting, to wildlife conservation.”
In its rather abbreviated first year, the center pulled in just over 100,000 visitors. Of those, 5,000 took an educational program. The center offers a full slate of programs for young people, from short summer courses to day-long field trips for local school children.
“I think the kids we see from around here, locally, seem to be fairly in tune with the environment,” Buckler notes. “But that has a lot to do with where they’re growing up. Much of what we do here along the coast, along the Outer Banks in particular, is very much environment-oriented, whether it’s simple recreation or trying to make a living off the land.
“Historically, that was what this area was built upon,” Buckler continues, “whether it was for fishing or agriculture. And I think a lot of that history is very present in people’s lives today, and that certainly makes them a little more aware of the environment.”
But the center also receives many visits from young people growing up in urban and suburban environments. For many of them, a trip to the Outer Banks is their first time in the great outdoors – and it makes some of them uncomfortable.
With so many indoor activities, and a popular culture increasingly centered on computers, televisions, and DVDs, kids can very easily not venture outside. Spending so much time indoors, it becomes easy for them to view the outside as a scary place.
“It’s makes perfect sense that they’re a little uneasy in something that’s unknown to them,” says Buckler. “That’s why an education center like ours is so important, to try to inform people about the outdoors and the environment. That makes them more knowledgeable, but also makes them more comfortable with where they fit into the natural world.”
One of the leading advocates for getting children outdoors is Cheryl Charles. Though she works for a nonprofit business consortium today, she once was the national director for both Project WILD and Project Learning Tree, programs that help elementary and high school teachers incorporate environmental and nature education into their curriculums. She is also working with Richard Louv, and environmental educators across the country to launch the new “Leave No Child Inside” campaign.
The biggest thing parents and organizations can do? The obvious thing: help kids get outside and enjoy themselves.
“It doesn’t have to be big,” says Charles, “a trip to a local park, a short nature walk through a wooded area, taking kids fishing, exploring a field for plants and wildlife. But there also has to be some learning and some sense of accomplishment built around the experience.”
» Click here for a list of outside Outer Banks activities in our Kids Rule! section.
That sense of accomplishment can be experienced with activities like “Crabby Clinic” at Jockey’s Ridge State Park, where kids and parents get to see live blue crabs, and learn about their life cycle and habitats from a park ranger. “Blackbeard’s Treasure Hunt” teaches kids the basics of using a compass and map. Then, the kids use these newfound skills to discover their own bits of buried treasure, in small toys the rangers have buried earlier.
“That’s a lot of fun for the kids,” says Thorburn, “and, actually, the parents learn a lot on that one, too!”
Numerous nature walks, where adults and kids are accompanied by a naturalist, are available at Cape Hatteras National Seashore, while the The Outer Banks Center for Wildlife Education provides a full selection of indoor and outdoor educational opportunities.
Fun though these experiences can be, children being connected to nature has some important implications for all of our futures. As Lyons notes, kids who connect with nature at Cape Hatteras National Seashore will come to care about and defend such places when they become adults.
“If kids don’t have good outdoor experiences, and good emotional experiences, here at the Seashore, the Park Service is not going to have good stewards in the future, or far fewer stewards,” says Lyons.
Buckler thinks environmental education is essential for young people who will eventually have to make important judgments about the natural world.
“Hopefully,” he says, “with that knowledge, they start making some responsible decisions in their lifetimes about our natural resources, utilizing them, and about the environment in general.”