Playing outside seems like such a simple thing.
Yet ask any busy parent and they will report myriad obstacles to sending their kids outdoors to play.
If those obstacles, ranging from stranger danger to overscheduling and lack of outdoor spaces, are not overcome this generation of children will have little or no connection to the natural world—and little reason to want to protect it.
Which is why Chicago Wilderness, an affiliation of more than 220 organizations and agencies, has undertaken a sweeping campaign called‘No Child Left Inside’ aimed at surmounting the challenges today’s society presents against getting outside.
The effort is born out of startling research and a landmark book, Last Child In the Woods: Saving Our Children From Nature Deficit Disorder by Richard Louv, who connects the lack of childhood exposure to nature with pediatric health issues such as childhood obesity, attention deficit and hyperactivity disorder and dwindling
“Louv was not the first nor is (he the) only person to talk about this, there have been people experiencing these concerns for a long time, but the book was done well and substantively grounded and I say it touched a chord of common sense,” says Cheryl Charles, president and CEO of the non-profit Children& Nature Network. The network launched a national campaign in April 2006.
That message resonated strongly with Chicago Wilderness Consortium, which aims to protect and restore Chicago’s ecosystems.
“It used to be kids did things together and explored as groups and nature was this wide open canvas in which you grew up and painted your own picture,” says Melinda Pruett-Jones, executive director of Chicago Wilderness."For millennia this was how children around the world grew up, but in the last 30 years have been cut off from nature because of parents’ fear of strangers, the digital age and many other things.”
So Chicago Wilderness devised an action plan to bring children to nature through outreach and partnerships with schools, churches, community groups and an entirely new contingent of groups that need to be interested in the well-being of children, Pruett-Jones says.
“This is also a reaching out to planners, builders, designers to get them thinking about the needs of children and maybe doing things differently as they’re designing communities,” she explains.
Without a doubt, parents are key in reversing the trend away from nature, but for the battle to be won, it must be waged at multiple levels.
“The issue of this disconnect and what Louv has coined‘Nature Deficit Disorder’ is something that effects everyone and therefore it takes many of us coming together from different sectors and expertise to make the changes that are needed,” Charles says.
Luckily for Chicagoans, dozens of Wilderness coalition members have already re-branded programs as‘Leave No Child Inside’ activities, which can be found online at www.kidsoutside.info, and are planning countless more, says Peggy Stewart, manager of outdoor and environmental education at the Chicago Park District.
And the coalition hopes to have a formal campaign kick-off the first week of June at Millennium Park.
Creating structured activities isn’t the primary initiative goal, but for parents who themselves didn’t explore nature as children, it’s a vital component.
Structured programs provide parents a starting point, where they’ll gain comfort and confidence in nature.
“Going on a nature walk where you have a guide pointing out things might make you more apt to come back on your own because when you’re able to open your mind and begin to feel comfortable walking around in nature with your kids, odds are you’ll return,” Stewart says.
Two such hikes are offered at the Lyman Woods Interpretive Center of the Downers Grove Park District, which is a Wilderness Coalition member.
Held during the evening hours, the hikes—Howl at the Moon and Goodnight Twilight—give parents with young children the chance to explore nature at night, says Shannon Forsythe, manager of natural resources and interpretive services at the center.
“In many cases, it’s the first time the young child has been out in the woods at night so we want to create a safe and comfortable feeling,” Forsythe says.
Ignorance about proper titles of plants and animals should not discourage parents from going into nature, adds naturalist Irene Flebbe, assistant director at The Hal Tyrell Trailside Museum of Natural History in Forest Park, which is part of the Forest Preserve District of Cook County and offers dozens of initiative-related events, including birding and wildflower hikes.
“Knowing the names is such a minor part of it—it’s about what you see, experience, how you feel about it and just the act of children getting out there is incredibly important,” Flebbe say.
Camping is another great way for parents to share nature with their children, says Peggy Stewart, manager of outdoor and environmental education at the Chicago Park District. She says one of the initiative goals is encouraging Wilderness coalition members to provide more camping opportunities and more unstructured time within those sessions.
Parents who have never camped can start with the Chicago Park District, which offers an experience known unofficially as‘catered camping.’ Held for just one night at several Chicago parks, the district provides all the food and equipment a parent would need with the hope of inspiring them to do it on their own in a county, state or national park.
“You give people a sense of ownership over nature by spending time in it,” Stewart says.
There’s no easier place to acquire that feeling than in your own neighborhood.
To be sure, stranger danger has put an end to the days in which parents instruct children to go out and play until it starts to get dark. (Though Department of Justice statistics show that in this decade and during the 1990s, childhood abduction by strangers fell to about 100 annually from 200 and 300 in the 1980s.)
Charles says her group advises parents to create neighborhood watch-like cooperatives, in which parents take turns watching children play from a distance, allowing them free-range, unstructured play in a safe environment.
The idea of keeping a community eye on kids can be taken further by encouraging planners and builders to design new neighborhoods where people can see one another, says Cheryl Charles, president and CEO of the non-profit Children& Nature Network.
Along the same lines, parents can alternate walking or biking with their children to school, which provides a safety umbrella while yielding much needed exercise, she adds.
Backyards alone provide myriad opportunities for children to explore nature.
Or, if you don’t have a backyard, creating a container garden with soil, plants of varying heights, textures and colors gives younger children a sense of the difference in how plants grow.
“Maybe you have lunch outside and afterward ask your children open questions about how the leaves look or how the mud feels on their toes or if they climb a tree what the view is like from up there,” she says."It’s about keeping it simple.”
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Robin Huiras is a freelance writer living in Evergreen Park.