Earthday speaker says kids need to enjoy nature

April 24, 2008 - 0:0

Fewer children are walking to school, camping out and looking under rocks today than 30 years ago, and the main reason is because their parents are afraid.

The Bracken Environmental Fund brought Cheryl Charles from Santa Fe, N.M., to Muncie to deliver that wake-up call during her keynote address kicking off Earth Week at Ball State University.
""No Student Left Inside"" is the theme of the week.
""For the first time in human history, kids are not spending much time outdoors,"" said Charles, president of Children & Nature Network. ""I'm here to talk about the burgeoning movement ... to reconnect kids and nature."" Charles co-founded C&NN with Richard Louv, author of Last Child in the Woods: Saving Our Children From Nature-Deficit Disorder.
During her talk, Charles played a video-taped message from Louv, who said the bond between kids and nature had been broken over the past 20 to 30 years.
""When you turn a rock over and find out you are not alone in the universe, or when you listen to the leaves blowing in the woods, that moment of wonder is the source of all spiritual growth,"" Louv said. ""How can we cut that off and cut children off from that sense of wonder? We are in danger of doing that.""
Children are spending less time outdoors in part because their parents are busy, and in part because kids are distracted by cell phones, TV, movies, iPods and the Internet, Louv said.
""But when you really get to it, what parents talk about more than anything is their fear of strangers, of people, and that's why they don't want their kids going outdoors,"" Louv said.
""The irony is, the actual threat of 'stranger danger,' of child abduction, is a fraction of what people actually think it is. But the fear is real.""
Louv acknowledged there is a risk from strangers, as well as a risk from nature itself.
""But it's not as much as we think, and there's also a huge risk in raising a generation under virtual house arrest,"" he said. ""There's a risk to their spirit, their sense of connection to the Earth, their sense of place, their sense of community. There's a risk to their body in terms of obesity and their future health. That's a huge risk.""
Louv and Charles are not anti-technology. ""It's just out of balance,"" Charles said. ""Some data show that children today are spending anywhere from 45 to 60 hours a week hooked into electronic (devices).""
Children are out of shape in far greater numbers than most people imagine, Charles said. Obesity among youths has increased from 4 percent of the population in the 1960s to 20 percent today.
Charles called White River Greenway a wonderful example of what communities can do to reconnect children and nature.
After the talk, Carolyn Walker, an associate professor of elementary education at Ball State, called Minnetrista another great outdoor asset where children can walk, talk, calm down, discover and get motivated.
A lot of the activity at Minnetrista is structured, which is fine. But children also need natural areas where they can invent, explore and take risks without adult supervision, Charles said.
""You have to have structure or it gets destroyed,"" said John Taylor, manager of Christy Woods at Ball State University. ""There are too few places for free play where children can interact with nature. There are also too few places for children even in semi-structured environments like Christy Woods.""
For one easy option, parents might want to consider installing a giant log, a tree house and a garden in the back yard, according to Charles.