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Getting kids outdoors in the technological age

7/28/2007

PROVIDENCE, R.I. — George Jacques taught physical education last
year in Rhode Island's Foster-Glocester Regional School District where
he noticed a peculiar phenomenon taking shape: fewer children were
returning to school in September with suntans.

"I'd ask them what they did all summer and they'd say: 'We were at
a neighbor's house playing the greatest and latest video game.' "

At Camp Fuller in South Kingstown, the staff is building sleeping
platforms this summer on their get-away island where, for more than a
century, children eagerly pitched tents for overnight stays. But
today, fewer kids sleep outside, much less on the ground, so the staff
must entice them with more comfortable accommodations.

At the summer camp at the W. Alton Jones Campus in West Greenwich,
the adventure backpacking trips into northern New England have been
curtailed for lack of interest.

"It's hard work and they don't want to go to the bathroom in the woods,'' says camp manager John Jacques (no relation to George Jacques). "A lot of these kids have their own
bathrooms at home.''

In this advancing technological age — where the young seem more
familiar with camping out on a sidewalk for the latest version of Xbox
than along a mountain stream — some people fear America may be
producing its first generation of children unplugged from nature.

And the consequences, they say, are great.

"If people don't establish that connection with nature, who in the
future will care and fight to preserve the environment?'' asks Dennis
Schain with the Connecticut Department of Environment Protection. "If
as adults they don't have that base of experience, are they going to
be aroused to protect the great natural resources, the important
lands, the animal species?''

It was that concern that prompted Connecticut last year to join a
national movement now spurring dozens of grassroots projects across
the country and hearings on Capitol Hill. The movement has a name: No
Child Left Inside.

The movement, made up of environmental groups, civic leaders and
child advocates, is motivating cities and states to develop programs
that get more families outside enjoying the great outdoors.

In Connecticut, environmental protection officials developed the
"Great Park Pursuit.'' This summer, about 350 families are competing
to see who can visit the most state parks and correctly answer outdoor
questions each weekend. There are online clues and the winners receive
a showcase of outdoor gear. Foster families get to use the parks for
free.

In California, lawmakers recently passed the Children's Outdoor
Bill of Rights, which will financially support outdoor education
programs in schools and youth centers.

And two weeks ago in Vermont, Gov. Jim Douglas launched a
month-long No Child Left Inside challenge that encourages children to
chronicle in story and pictures where they travel outside. The
children will drop off their "scorecards'' at the end of the month at
any Vermont state park and those who have traveled the most will
receive camping and hiking prizes.

The push has been largely spurred by the bestselling book "Last
Child in the Woods: Saving Our Children from Nature-Deficit
Disorder,'' published in 2005 and written by journalist Richard Louv.

Louv's book was one of the first to highlight research showing a
link between the absence of nature in today's wired generation and
childhood obesity, attention deficit disorders and depression.

Amy Pertschuk is the managing director of the Children & Nature
Network. Louv co-founded the San Francisco-based group in April 2006
as a way to showcase many of the programs cropping up to get kids out
and enjoying the kinds of unstructured romps through nature so much a
part of previous generations.

The network's Web site quotes a University of Maryland study that
showed that between 1997 and 2003, the proportion of children between
ages 9 and 12 who spent time outside hiking, fishing and playing
dropped by half, from 16 percent to 8 percent.

Pertschuk says the attraction kids have to technology has not been
the only barrier to them losing interest with the natural world around
them.

Parental fear has played a big role, too.

"Everything from Lyme disease to stranger danger'' has dissuaded
parents from allowing their children to experience nature, she says. "You're not going to get around that so you have to come up with new
and innovative ways where kids can play where they are unsupervised
but be safe, too.''

The unsupervised component is an important one, say many child
advocates.

"Part of the problem is the hovering parent,'' says Bette Bussel,
executive director of the American Camp Association's New England
office, located in Lexington, Mass. "Parents are scared of things
that might happen to (their children) outside. Consequently, you have
kids today who don't know what poison ivy looks like and don't have an
opportunity to learn to make decisions, to work out problems on their
own.''

John Jacques, of the W. Alton Jones Camps, says the changing family
dynamic has contributed to children having less real experience
outside. A generation ago, Mom was usually home and could take the
kids to the beach or a park. Today, mothers are working along with
fathers.

So while Jacques says kids who come to camp still have an interest
in the outdoors, "they aren't coming with the experience they once
had. They aren't home exploring the streams and woods around their
neighborhoods, or they don't have any, which is a possibility, or
their parents are concerned about their safety.''

At the YMCA's Camp Fuller, camp director Peter Swain says he sees
many of his young charges arrive "over-structured'' and naive when it
comes to the ways of backyard nature, "which is ironic, since this is
supposed to be the Green Generation.''

While kids today may have a better understanding of global warming,
few can identify the creature crawling through their home garden as a
salamander.

Nor do they have much familiarity with the physical commitment and
"psychological endurance'' required of a weekend camping trip; the
kind of roughing it "where they have to cook their own food and get
sweaty and don't take showers'' which helped mold generations before
them.

Kids today "are not prepared to do a lot of difficult things, not
just physical things but mental things; less so than they used to be,
I think.''

When Swain was growing up in Upstate New York 30 years ago, "a lot
of my friends were outside a lot, hunting and fishing, doing chores. I
think they may be better conservationists than some of today's kids
are environmentalists in a way. I think they look at it as: 'I grew up
in this, I want to make sure it's available to me — and clean.'''

Reach Tom Mooney at tmooney(at)projo.com
(Distributed by Scripps Howard News Service, www.scrippsnews.com.)