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 now. As author Richard Louv observes in his landmark book, Last Child in the Woods, kids spend just half the time outdoors that they did when I was growing up in the 1970s. He’s 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-II 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 practices, but he has little room for unscripted time in nature, even though we are fortunate to have public open space and the Rocky Mountain foothills on our doorstep.
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 other’s company more, just like we did when our family camped and hiked our way around the grandeur of the American West when I was a kid.
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 Snake River Valley floor, 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 together, like snorkeling with sea lions in the Galapagos, watching polar bears spar on the snowy tundra in Canada and canoeing in the Amazon rainforest . I’m dreaming of a safari to Botswana before my oldest child fledges the nest in a couple of 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, but there are many to choose from, and lots of less-discovered gems that may be close to home. Check out the whole slate of Natural Habitat’s Family Adventures if you like the idea of someone else saving you the hassle of all the legwork, as well as providing unparalleled guides to make your family’s nature vacation as rewarding as it could possibly be.
While you’re at it, check out the Children and Nature Network for more ideas on how you can join the growing trend to reconnect our kids with the natural world that sustains us all in so many ways.