Document Actions

This Washington Post article explores the enormous shift in children’s time from outdoors to indoors in just the past few years.

Getting Lost in the Great Indoors

Date Published:

Jun 19, 2007 03:00 AM

Author: Donna St. George, Washington Post Staff Writer

Source: Washington Post, Page A01

Many Adults Worry Nature Is Disappearing From Children’s Lives

[For article in original source click here.]

WASHINGTON – Linda Pelzman appreciates the beauty of the outdoor world, sometimes pulling her children into the yard to gaze at a full moon or peer into a dense fog. An educator and founder of a summer camp, she wishes her enthusiasm were fully shared.

On a recent nature walk near her Gaithersburg, Md., home, her younger son, 6, was unimpressed, pleading, “I just want to go back to civilization.” Her older son, at 13, has made it clear he prefers PlayStation.

“Kids don’t think about going outside like they used to, and unless there is some scheduled activity, I don’t think they know what to do outdoors anymore,” Pelzman said.

Her view is shared by a growing number of children’s advocates, environmentalists, executives and politicians who fear that this might be the first generation of “indoor children” disconnected from nature.

Concerns about long-term consequences – to emotional well-being, health, learning abilities, environmental consciousness – have spawned a movement to “leave no child inside.”

In recent months, it has been the focus of Capitol Hill hearings, state legislative action, grass-roots projects, a U.S. Forest Service initiative to get more children into the woods and a national effort to promote a daily “green hour.”

Today, 40 civic leaders – representing several governors, three big-city mayors, Walt Disney Co., Sesame Workshop, DuPont, the gaming industry and others – will launch a campaign to raise $20 million to fund 20 initiatives to encourage children to do what once seemed second nature: Go outdoors.

“If we really want to make a difference in this area, we need a shift in the culture,” said Larry Selzer, president of the Conservation Fund, which organized the alliance.

Researchers long have been aware of the decline in outdoor activity. It has been documented by experts such as Sandra Hofferth, a family studies professor at the University of Maryland.

From 1997 to 2003, Hofferth found, there was a decline of 50 percent – from 16 percent to 8 percent – in the proportion of children 9 to 12 who spent time in outside activities such as hiking, walking, fishing, beach play and gardening. Organized sports were not included as an outdoor activity in the study, which was based on detailed time diaries.

Hofferth’s study showed an increase in computer play time for all children and in time spent on television and video games for ages 9 to 12. And it found increases in sleep time, study time and reading time.

The increased activism has been partly inspired by author Richard Louv’s best-selling book, “Last Child in the Woods.”

Coining the term “Nature Deficit Disorder.” Louv argues indoor kids are more prone to a range of childhood problems, including obesity, depression and attention disorders. He contends they miss out on the spiritual, emotional and psychological benefits of exposure to the wonders of nature, including reduced stress and improved cognitive development.

“I’m not saying a child who grows up without nature is going to have terrible problems,” Louv said, “but if you look at the studies that show what nature does give kids, it’s unfortunate that so many children are missing out on that.”

At the National Wildlife Federation, Kevin Coyle, vice president for education, said Louv’s book attached a name and a framework to a phenomenon everyone knew existed.

Coyle’s group, which publishes Ranger Rick and Your Big Backyard magazines, looked for a way to take the next step. It started promoting the “green hour” – and the idea that children need a casual hour outdoors each day in the same way they need a good night’s sleep or a vitamin.

At least 30 grass-roots efforts have been started across the country in the past two years – focusing on legislation, nature centers, nature-based preschools, open space and other matters, said Amy Pertschuk, managing director of the Children & Nature Network, which was co-founded by Louv.

Experts suggest a major factor in the decline of outdoor time is parental fear about leaving children unattended – aggravated by excessive media coverage of horrific crimes.

Changes in family life also have had an influence: more mothers in the work force, more structured playtime, more organized sports. Fewer hours are left for kids to slip out the back door and play hide-and-seek, catch fireflies, skip stones and create imaginary worlds.

A Kaiser Family Foundation study shows children ages 8 to 18 now spend 6.5 hours a day on TV, electronic games, computers, music and other media, with many multi-tasking electronically. For many, the virtual world has become a more familiar setting than the natural one.

– end –