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Monday, April 12, 2010

Nature & Child Reunion Part 2 (Read...comment...win!)

Reconnecting Children With the Natural World
Written by Jodi Hiland of Happy Trails Family Nature Club

Barriers to Outdoor Free-Play
There are myriad barriers to children's outdoor free play, and these must be addressed in every corner of society. Times may never be what they once were for children, but we must create a new, balanced reality.
Parental Fear
One of the biggest reasons children are seen less outdoors is parents' perceived "stranger danger." I say "perceived", because while child abductions do occasionally occur, it is not nearly as often as people believe. The modern media have gone overboard in their reporting of these incidents, and with internet news spreading like wildfire, it is now to the point where we think abductions are happening far more than they are. In fact, most abducted children are taken by someone the child knows, like a family member. And, the number of these hasn't increased since the 1970's (when I was a kid). Of course, any child being taken is a horrible tragedy. But to keep our nation's children locked indoors isn't the answer.

There are other kinds of fears parents have that prevent many kids from going outside to play. Parents' own views have a tremendous influence on whether or not kids like the outdoors, or get the chance to play there. Adults' own aversions to strangers, bugs, weather, getting dirty, darkness, and more will greatly decide how often and where kids play. Often, parents may believe their child will be less likely to come in contact with germs at a Burger King playplace. Nature's "germs" are actually beneficial, whereas the ones with which kids come into contact inside a well-used play structure are probably more harmful.So what can we do? I think we, as parents, need to be creative, and also face our fears. How can we get our kids' outdoor needs met, and still feel fairly comfortable? We need to take a moment to look at our family's life, our schedules, and make outdoor time a top priority, instead of a "nice extra". Perhaps we can examine our fears, and realize we can't always protect our precious children, every moment. It wasn't meant to be that way. At some point, we need to let them roam a bit, if at all possible. And we can go outside with them! We can leave them alone, but be nearby. We can delete a few things from their scheduled lives, and create large chunks of "free time". Far from being a waste of time, these hours are actually necessary for optimal development, and happiness. Professor of Social Ecology at Yale, Stephen Kellert, says experience in a surrounding home territory, especially in nearby nature, is linked to shaping children's cognitive maturation, including the developed abilities of analysis, syntheses and evaluation.Not So Much Natural SpaceAnother barrier to children's free-play in the natural world is the lack of natural spaces, close to home. Development in the last few decades has been so widespread, that kids have very few places to roam anymore. Disappearing are the vacant lots, cornfields, wetlands, streams, trees and more that children used to practically live in, away from home. Even if many kids have access to parks, etc. somewhere else in their town, there needs to be green space where the children live. In his book Children's Special Places, David Sobel explains why it is crucial for a child's developing sense of "self" to have places to go to alone, such as a fort, tree house, a hidden shrub, etc. He writes, "During this period of middle childhood, the self is fragile and under construction and needs to be protected from view of the outside world. The self, like the metamorphosing butterfly, needs to be wrapped in a cocoon before it emerges into the light. Thus, the places that children seek out are places where they cannot be seen, places to begin the unfolding of the self."
Excessive Electronic Media
Yet another reason we see far less children wandering about outside today is that they are "plugged in" to a wide array of electronic media. Today, there are so many technological gizmos vying for kids' attention, that they are not very interested in the natural world outside their front door. In our country, children spend an average of 45 hours a week in front of a screen. That's the equivalent of a work week! Again, this is where I think it is our job as parents to step in and create balance. There need to be firm limits on the number of hours and minutes texting, updating My Space, playing Xbox, and watching "Zach and Cody". Sadly, kids today often spend more time texting their friends, and less time actually talking to them in person. Of course, kids learn how to be in the world by watching their parents. The "I'm the parent, you're the child" idea may seem logical when it comes to t.v. viewing limits, for example, but their lifelong habits will be greatly influenced by what they see us doing (or not doing!). Would it be so weird to shut off the t.v. and go for a family stroll? I know with my little ones, it is all too easy to leave TPT on while I get one more thing accomplished around the house. But I do my best to shut it off, even if it means they get into some mischief while I'm putting clothes in the dryer!

By far one of the biggest reasons kids are not freely playing outside is due to a packed schedule. For many families, there isn't much choice, as the parents work several jobs, or the kids live in an unsafe neighborhood. But for scores of other kids, the scheduling is due to well-meaning parents, wanting their children to have many kids of experiences. They may have dance class, music lessons, soccer, football, t-ball - you name it. The kids do homework in between, play a little Playstation, watch t.v., then go to bed. Day after day. In a given week, when did these children have time to be bored for a moment, and wonder what to do? And when did they hang out outdoors? For how long? Parents often think that soccer games, for example, provide plenty of outside time. However, organized sports are not "free time", in which the children are free to wander about, with the kids themselves making up the play.Societal Fear of LawsuitsOur litigous society is another issue surrounding kids' lack of access to outdoor play spaces. It used to be that a child up in a tree was a cause for congratulations, or even so ubiquitous as to be hardly noteworthy. Nowadays, if an adult sees a child in a tree, the child is usually scolded, told to get down, that they are being dangerously foolish, and the panic of a potential lawsuit ensues. The fear of being sued is so pervasive that playgrounds on schoolyards are asceptically boring to kids. One American school went so far as to post a "no running" sign! Studies show that playgrounds with a fair amount of "green space" have less incidences of playground bullying and violence, and much more cooperative interactions. Children in very poor, inner-city neighborhoods often face the issue of little access to green space, or at least, little safe passage to it. And lest anyone think wealthier, suburban kids have lots of green spaces in which to roam, they, too, often face roadblocks. Covenants in many subdivisions expressly forbid children being in certain areas, up in trees, building forts, etc.,and there are few, if any, natural areas - just manicured landscapes.

No Child Left Behind
Ask most any school teacher (or parent), and it is obvious that the controversial "No Child Left Behind" policy is greatly impacting kids' outside time. Due to greater work loads and preparation for testing, curriculums in schools have all but eliminated environmental education. Field trips? A thing of the past. Science is often being taught later. Recess is either short, or non-existant. And when the kids get home from school, they often have piles of homework to get to, instead of heading outside to play.

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robin said...

love this one, Karrie. love your dirt and I agree with you 100%!

Ryan said...

I think you should go back to the COW and write your IS on this topic. It would be far more interesting than coal geology of eastern Ohio.

Kristin said...

There are a number of decent books that cover the importance of outdoor play for cognitive development. I think too that (semi-) unsupervised outdoor play is essential for kids to figure out how to safely take risks. I can tell you all day long that the puddle is deeper than your puddle boots but until the water comes streaming over the top, you'll probably want to put your foot in the water. If I don't let my child try it (because I perceive it to be a bad idea) then my child doesn't develop the problem solving skills required to think through the situation.

And yes, I have a phd in geology but should have instead pursued a phd in child development.Far FAR more interesting.

Anonymous said...

The last bit about the No Child Left Behind thing reminds me of an article from The Wilderness Center about No Child Left Inside! I remember roaming and hiding out in lots of woods, creeks and big backyards in my neighborhood as a kid. It is very important for parents to remember that green space as a play space.

Jennifer Shue said...

Thanks for sharing this Karrie!

isujum said...

As a former primary teacher, it is amazing to me the pressure that is put on children at such a young age. In my Kindergarten days, I remember the Letter People, not having 20-30 minutes of homework at the end of a long day at school!

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