Parents concerned that their youngsters are spending too much time in front of screens have a place to turn: the great outdoors.
The places where many Maine people feel most at home may offer the best antidote for what The New York Times called “the fully automated child.” Many of our children are or seem to be so disconnected from the natural world that they’ve been branded as sufferers of something called “nature-deficit disorder.”
That’s not a real medical condition. The man who coined the term, writer Richard Louv, contends that a strong connection with the natural world has all kinds of benefits, including mental sharpness, lower levels of obesity, boosting overall health and simply having fun. Louv writes in several books that getting ourselves into natural settings is critical to our healthy growth and development.
Many who have studied the erosion of recess in schools will argue that time spent outdoors in addition to classrooms offers a balanced education. In the book Balanced and Barefoot, Angela Hanscom, a pediatric occupational therapist, wrote that she had been seeing more and more young patients who could not tolerate wind in their faces, had poor balance or lack of coordination or who cried or got upset in unfamiliar situations.
Hanscom wrote that lots of movement is the key to countering those problems. “I discovered that movement through active free play — particularly in the outdoors — is absolutely the most beneficial gift we as parents, teachers and caregivers can bestow on our children …” (emphasis hers).
Louv and Hanscom have found that their messages resonate with people and groups across the country. Schools, civic groups and volunteers from numerous organizations have set up environmental education programs for young people of various ages. Summer camps are bustling with young people running headlong into nature, many for the first time.
Groups in many states have joined a coalition called “No Child Left Inside” or NCLI. The goal is to get kids outside, moving as they need to, interacting with nature as they learn about it and themselves.
Portland Water District is among the 35 Maine members of NCLI. The district’s Sarah Plummer coordinates educational offerings of the district. “Getting kids connected to nature from a young age is important,” she told me. “It fosters a love and respect of the environment.”
And some classroom teachers must be wondering, “Why not here?”
Recess times have been shortened to put more emphasis on academics. When children fidget, we tell them to keep still. Hanscom argues that when children are inactive, their brains tend to shut down. She wrote in The Washington Post that 20 minutes of activity is not enough. “They need hours of play outdoors in order to establish a healthy sensory system and to support higher-level attention and learning in the classroom.”
As consumers, the ways we use our time may be among the most important decisions we make. Helping young people to put their time to its best use might be the best education we can offer.
“In order for children to learn, they need to be able to pay attention,” Plummer wrote in The Washington Post. “In order to pay attention, we need to let them move.”
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