When I was growing up in damp western Washington, I remember many occasions where my dad insisted we kids leave the TV and spend time outside. It may have been gray and drizzly, but he knew there was something valuable about fresh air and green spaces. I usually didn’t need much convincing. I have fond memories of long walks in the woods with my dog, riding my bike and watching waves roll in to the beach on Puget Sound.
Things are different for kids now. As author Richard Louv observed in his landmark book Last Child in the Woods, kids spend only half the time outdoors than they did when I was growing up in the 1970s. He coined a term to describe the problems that ensue when a whole generation is cut off from centuries of connection to the natural world: Nature Deficit Disorder.
Kids now are more sedentary, experiencing obesity and type 2 diabetes in ever-increasing numbers. They are less able to relax, reflect and focus. Louv’s book tracks the growing disconnect between children and nature and the concomitant rise in health problems, depression and attention disorders. It’s partly a function of more indoor distractions — X-Box, YouTube and 200 channels of television versus the handful I remember — but we parents are to blame too, for over-scheduling our kids.
It’s a tough cultural trend to resist. My daughter doesn’t have time for long walks with our dog because she’s so busy with after-school activities like dance and piano lessons. Her brother may be outside more with soccer and track practice, but he has little room for unscripted time in nature, even though we are fortunate to have big tracts of public open space near our home and the Rocky Mountain foothills on our city doorstep.
How to get kids back in the woods
It thus becomes all the more important to make sure that our rare family downtime — especially our treasured summer vacation — is spent in natural settings. When we escape to nature, we slow down and enjoy each others’ company more.
I’ve watched the enchantment on my kids’ faces when they come face-to-face with wildlife. They don’t seem to miss their iPods or texting their friends when there is so much to distract them in the form of rushing streams, rock piles, meadows full of wildflowers and hawks wheeling overhead. From the grandest vista — like the backbone of the Tetons rising from the floor of Jackson Hole — to the small phenomena that elude a rushed eye — like lime-green lichen on talus — the natural world offers beauty, learning and a sense of awe too often missing in our frenetic 21st-century lives.
Our family has been fortunate to enjoy some incredible nature experiences, like snorkeling with sea lions and penguins in the Galapagos Islands, watching polar bears spar on the snowy tundra in Canada and canoeing in the Amazon rain forest. I’m dreaming of a safari to Botswana before my oldest leaves the nest for college in just two years.
But we don’t have to go far to immerse kids in nature’s wonders. Here at home, we have some of the most astounding wild lands and scenic spectacles anywhere on earth. Why not explore one of our fabled national parks this summer? Grand Canyon, Glacier and Yellowstone are icons you may be tempted to avoid due to summer crowds, but even the busiest parks have lots of less-traveled trails once you get away from the tourist hubs. Most park visitors never venture more than a few hundred yards from the main drive-up sites. There are also scores of less-discovered national parks, such as Michigan’s Isle Royale, Colorado’s Black Canyon of the Gunnison or Nevada’s Great Basin, with its 13,063-foot centerpiece, Wheeler Peak.
And, don’t neglect the joys of a lazy weekend hanging out at a big city park that offers an escape from asphalt and traffic. There are well-known classics like Central Park — the green lungs of New York City — and San Francisco’s Golden Gate. But other impressive urban oases may be near your summer vacation destination: Check out places like Forest Park in Portland, Ore.; Point Defiance in Tacoma, Wash.; 4,500-acre Shelby Farms in Memphis; and Audubon Park along the Mississippi River in New Orleans.
While you’re at it, check out the Children and Nature Network and the Be Out There movement for more ideas on how you can join the growing trend to reconnect our kids with the natural world that sustains us in so many ways.