Kids spend well over 40 HOURS per week in front of electronic screens, but less than 40 MINUTES per week in nature. Screens are ruling teens.
A major component of growing up is learning to deal with long waits and unexpected delays, yet nearly everything is now available in an instant. If we are going to prepare our kids for the best things in life, we need to teach them to wait and reward them for being patient. Kids need opportunities to practice patience that are followed by rewards for sticking with it to the end—whether it’s a 500-piece puzzle or a friendship with a neighbor that takes a long time to develop.
Once again, the push-button culture is working against kids. They are constantly given immediate, customized, positive feedback from their cell phones, iPods, video games, YouTube, and Facebook. These are places where they can hit pause, fast-forward, or reset any time they like with no consequences. But in real life, and especially in the natural world, there are no fast-forward or reset buttons. In order to experience a sunset, you have to watch for a while. A computer cannot simulate that experience.
The Need for Nature
Richard Louv, author of the best-selling book Last Child in the Woods, understands this problem more than anyone, and loves children enough to cry out for them, “Let the children play outdoors!” His books and lectures have inspired a national movement that wants to leave no child inside. He encourages all families to embrace the nature that is in their local community. “For children,” he writes, “nature comes in many forms. A pet that lives and dies; a worn path through the woods; a fort nested in stinging nettles—whatever shape nature takes, it offers each child an older, larger world separate from parents. Nature offers healing for a child.”1
Louv explains how our children’s generation is suffering from what he calls “nature deficit disorder,” a preventable ailment of the body, mind, and soul. Kids just don’t go outdoors anymore. Just look out the window and count the children; most likely the only people you see are older people walking dogs or taking out the trash. Louv’s book opens with a telling quote by a fourth grader in San Diego who said, “I like to play indoors better ’cause that’s where all the electric outlets are.”
Electronic screens are more like screen doors or screen windows than windows onto the real world. We can see and hear things through them to some extent, but the clarity and depth perception are inferior. We’re not fully in the world, even though we can hear and see and maybe even feel some of what’s happening out there. These digital doorways are virtual experiences at best; we need to get out into reality more. Our children, especially, deserve to be outdoors more.
Richard Louv explains that a child’s healthy mental and emotional development depend on outdoor experiences. “Nature inspires creativity in a child by demanding visualization and the full use of the senses. . . . Nature can frighten a child, too, and this fright serves a purpose. In nature, a child finds freedom, fantasy, and privacy: a place distant from the adult world, a separate peace.”2To sum up,a child who spends time outdoors in nature will be stronger and more capable than the typical indoor child.
Go Outside and Don’t Come Back Until . . .
Many of us grew up hearing our parents say, “Go outside and don’t come back until six for dinner.” We knew we had to go find something, anything to do. It might be shooting hoops next door, building a fort in the woods nearby, riding our bikes to the grocery store, or starting up a game of capture the flag or two-hand-shove football. Some of us would play video games in the basement of a friend’s house, especially when the weather was lousy, but generally, we played outdoors. In direct contrast, most of today’s kids are indoors, have no desire to go out, and have parents who are afraid that it’s just too dangerous out there.
So, what do we do to get our kids and the neighbors’ kids outdoors? First, we should send them out the way our parents and grandparents did. Tell them, “Get out of here. Go play. Make some fun out there.” If they will not budge off the couch, then take the remote controls or handheld devices and say that they can have them back after they play outside for an hour. Just do not let them sit inside all afternoon. If they’re engrossed in a book, tell them to take it outside. Just move them, one way or another, outdoors. But do not be too specific about what they need to do outside. If they want to nap, they can nap in the hammock. As long as they are getting some fresh air and sunshine, be happy. Give them freedom out there.
Second, we can participate. We can throw a Frisbee, toss a baseball, or shoot baskets. We can pump up the bike tires, dust off the helmets, get rolling. We can set up a kickball game in the cul-de-sac or common ground. It is not a two-hour commitment. It is just a “prime the pump” sort of thing. We can get them started, then we can go back to the house to get things done. Or just play. Sometimes we need to play as much as the kids do.
Third, buy equipment that promotes outdoor play. Invest in gear that neighbor kids and school friends will want to use. It can be as simple and affordable as a box of balls, cones, Wiffle bats, Frisbees, and sidewalk chalk, or as elaborate and expensive as a swimming pool. Consider the investment in dollars per use over the years, as well as the value of having your kids outdoors and having their friends at the house, where you can supervise and get to know them. Consider setting aside a big chunk of money for a backyard budget, and then discuss with all the kids in the family the best way to spend it so they’ll have as much fun as possible outdoors.
Finally, invite kids over. So often, there are kids nearby who would love to play outside, but they need to be invited. In the old days, you didn’t have to invite them, but now you do. Get outside and knock on some doors. Have a plan for a game and then recruit kids to play. Once they have a good time, they can recruit others. Soon enough, you may have one of those neighborhoods where the kids know each other and play together long into the summer nights. Invite their parents to participate or to come over for a happy hour in your lawn chairs. Most people find it wonderfully refreshing, but they need to be invited outdoors. Your neighborhood can be one where the kids play together and the adults talk to each other. They do exist, but they are intentionally created.
How to Turn Kids On To Nature
The best way we can unhook kids from their screens is to get them hooked on something even more interactive and real. What better antidote for digital addiction than fishing, hiking, or hunting? Now, not everybody has the ability or desire to hunt, fish, hike, or camp, but most people can do something beyond their neighborhood, out in the wild, even if it is just taking a walk in the woods. Go take a walk in the hour before the sun goes down, when many animals, even deer, are likely to be moving around. The morning hours are great for seeing birds and squirrels on the move. And you don’t have to go way out in the country. A big city park or a suburban trail will suffice.
Jake Hindman, an outdoor education center supervisor with the Missouri Department of Conservation and a true outdoorsman3, travels around the state teaching adults how to get kids interested in the outdoors. Here is a summary of his three-point lecture:
Go overboard in prepping for a day on the lake or in the woods. It is not about you—at all. It is all about fun and making good memories. You have to set aside your self and focus on the kids. Do not plan on fishing. Be the guide. Be the entertainer, the host. Make sure you have bug spray, favorite snacks, fun music for the road trip, and anything else that can make the day special, like catching your first fish, and free of problems like bug bites. Bring walkie-talkies, some fireworks, paintball guns, or water balloons. Just make sure the kids have a good time and that they are safe. Even if the fishing is a failure, being outdoors can still be a blast.
All of that takes forethought, shopping, and packing at least a day in advance. In fact, the prep work may take more time and energy than the outdoor adventure itself, but it’s the most important thing of all.
Do not push too hard. Let the experience flow on its own. Keep your experiences short and sweet. Leave before the kids are tired, hungry, or cranky. Leave the party while you’re still having fun. Again, this is not about what you want to do. You are the host. Make sure all the kids have fun, and in the end, you will end up having a great time, too. One great hour outdoors with kids is better than a whole day of bad experiences. Keep it short and sweet.
Celebrate every little success. Exaggerate your excitement about every little thing that you see as good. Take the good and make it seem great. Putting a worm on a hook for the first time should get a high five. Catching a fish should get photographed. Retell the events of the day with enthusiasm. Brag about it for days. Put the pictures on the fridge.
You do not have to be a camo-wearing outdoorsman to enjoy nature. Here are some some ideas for all sorts of people who are willing to get outside with their kids.
- go biking
- take a walk (to talk)
- go camping (start in your backyard)
- play four square
- go canoeing
- have a picnic at a local lake
- go boating, skiing, tubing
- play in the rain
- jump in puddles
- ride horses on a trail
- fly a kite
- fill a birdfeeder
- go on a treasure hunt in the woods
- play with the hose
- wash bikes and sports gear
- wash cars for cash
- climb a tree
- go apple-picking at a local orchard
- make a slip-and-slide in the backyard
- play in the leaves
- play in the sprinkler
- walk someone’s dog
- jog to get in shape for a sport
- kick a soccer ball
- throw a baseball
- shoot hoops
- build a snowman or snow cave
- go sledding
- have a snowball fight
- make snow angels
- shovel snow for cash
- take a nap in a hammock
I go into nature to be soothed and healed and to have my senses put in tune once more.
Stress reduction, greater physical health, a deeper sense of spirit, more creativity, a sense of play, even a safer life—these are the rewards that await a family when it invites more nature into children’s lives.