Hooking Kids on the Outdoors

Pointing to studies that show a serious disconnect between children and nature, the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department is pushing a program it calls "50 Ways to Get Kids Hooked on the Outdoors". They say technology, and the stresses and fears of modern day living are conspiring to keep kids indoors, and it's keeping them from having a normal childhood. Houston Public Radio's Jim Bell reports.

The gist of the article in the current issue of Texas Parks and Wildlife Magazine is that kids can't learn anything about the outdoors by watching the Discovery Channel or spending 40 to 50 hours a week watching TV and playing video games. The writers say kids need to be outside playing with other kids and making personal physical contact with nature and other living things, but, millions of children aren't doing any of those things. Nancy Herron manages Outdoor Learning Programs for the state parks department, and she says it's because kids' lives and time are so structured and organized.

"I think that parents and teachers and care givers are all well meaning, but what we've done is cut children off not only from nature but an essential part of their childhood, and I think they've done it out of fear, mostly."

Herron says this fear drives parents to put barriers between their children and the world outside their home.

"There's a huge emphasis on 'stranger-danger' right now, that children are going to be abducted, spirited away, and the reality is that those numbers are very small. I think there's maybe a hundred that are actually 'stranger abductions' in the country in a year. There's also fear of being outdoors. They're concerned they're going to be bitten by a snake or bugs, those kinds of things."

The result is that today's children are missing out on the simple joys of things like going barefoot, playing in the rain, making mudpies, catching fireflies, digging up worms to go fishing, baiting a hook, camping, hiking, or building a fort or a treehouse. San Diego journalist Richard Louv calls this disconnect "Nature-Deficit Disorder", and he says we're already seeing the consequences in the national epidemic of childhood obesity and attention deficit disorder.

"Teachers often talk about increasingly they have trouble getting their kids to visualize on their own, to make up their own games on their own, even to think on their own, and increasingly what we're seeing is kids growing up being spoon-fed information. They're sitting in front of the television, they're sitting playing a video game."

Louv tells parents to loosen up, untie the apron strings and let their kids go outdoors. Stop supervising and hovering just let them be kids, and find things to do on their own, even it's just playing in the dirt and they come home with mud all over them. That's part of being a kid. Nancy Herron at the parks department says she believes this situation can be reversed, because people in all walks of life are aware of it and believe it can be solved.

"And so we're seeing everyone come to the table, like developers, pediatricians, the Texas Pediatric Society has come on board, they want to get this message out. The Texas PTA, we have teachers, nature centers and community groups, and we're all recognizing that of all the ills of the world, this is one we can tackle and win."

The article in Texas Parks and Wildlife Magazine is titled "50 Ways to Get Kids Hooked on the Outdoors", and most of the activities are free or cost almost nothing. There's a link to the article on our website KUHF dot org. Jim Bell, Houston Public Radio News.