A recent scene at a local park sparked memories of countless days hanging outside with friends. We shared stories, goofed off, built forts, played in the water, and climbed trees to spy on passer-bys. Hours of entertainment and learning were fueled by our curiosity, creativity, interactions with each other and with the land.
These children were engrossed too. Not in the scenic park environment, nature or each other. They were engrossed in their electronics. One was talking and texting on their phone, two others were interacting with their iGadgets. They rarely looked up or spoke to each other. For ten minutes they interacted within their own individual worlds, oblivious to their surroundings and for the most part each other.
The screens children spend over 7.5 hours a day plugged into get more use than the screen door that leads them to their abandoned back yard. The most recent two generations are more disconnected with nature than any previous to them. How did we get so far removed from a world we are so intricately dependent on? Technology has its time, place and benefits, however, at what cost?
We are engaged with our gadgets more than in face to face conversations. In fact, according to recent findings, the average parent converses with their child less than five minutes a day. It’s a growing paradox, the more we are connected, the more we become disconnected.
Studies reveal that many parents and schools actually fear and discourage children from free play and exploration outdoors. Ironically, many of these ‘fears’ are the same things you and I survived as youth while mucking about outside ourselves. This constant connection and ever present media also drives these fears and fuels today’s Nature Deficit Disorder in children and adults.
We spend our waking hours insulated from nature and the outdoors by the walls of our car, house, workplace and school. As a result, time spent in local parks, yards, gardens, and riding bikes to work and school is on the decline.
With a combined 30 years experience working with children and families, we’re sad to report: Montana children are not immune to Nature Deficit Disorder- a disconnect to the natural world. The world that provides our food, water and air we breathe. The good news is, research, as well as our personal and professional experiences clearly document and reinforce the positive impacts nature can have on our physical, emotional, and intellectual wellbeing.
What to do?
Time exploring and learning outdoors offers numerous benefits. A simple stroll around the block or exploration in a park helps reduce stress, improves creative play, stimulates inquiry, problem solving and self confidence and increases physical activity (which can help combat today’s soaring childhood obesity rate).
‘Nature’ doesn’t require a wilderness expedition. Back yards, gardens, parks, school grounds and trails are convenient places to cultivate relationships between children and nature. The outdoors is a perfect venue to spark a child’s natural sense of wonder and play.
Encouraging a healthy lifestyle through interactions with nature can begin at home, at the workplace, in neighborhoods and at schools- places where we spend many hours of our day. These traditionally sod and paved landscapes can be designed to encourage and engage children and adults with the outdoors, not escape or fear it. Areas can easily, affordably and creatively integrate natural features to create interesting spaces for leisure, learning and play. Hyalite Elementary School is a recent example, having just converted a sod area into a vibrant outdoor classroom.
With summer winding into school, it’s time our children (re)discover the light from Montana’s big blue sky rather than from their electronic screens. Encouraging children to play and learn outdoors can foster engaged healthy learners. Reconnecting with nature is a simple way to positively influence a child’s life and the vision they create for our planet’s future.
This article was published as a Guest Column in the Bozeman Daily Chronicle. CO-authored by Bobbi j Geise and Christine O’Shea.