Several generations of Americans have recognized the problems inherent in progressive urbanization, industrialization, and recently digitalization of our youth. President Theodore Roosevelt was a firm supporter of the conservation movement and encouraged others to return to nature as a refreshing break from the societal demands of the 1900s. A book by Richard Louv (2008), “Last Child in the Woods: Saving Our Children From Nature Deficit Disorder” proclaims the benefits of encouraging outdoor physical activity as well as unstructured play in a natural environment in getting kids to unplug and become better able to focus, have fewer problems in structured environments such as school, and become better citizens.
With the childhood obesity rates soaring ationwide (though Maryland has a better track record than other states) and weight-related conditions such as diabetes and cardiac disease increasingly impacting people at younger and younger ages, we may often feel overwhelmed with advice to get off the couch and get active. Encouraging children to take an interest in the environment has the added benefit of making them see themselves as part of a larger community. Unlike athletics, which can be unduly competitive and thereby discouraging (especially for kids who are combating their weight or have other physical restrictions), outdoor activities like hiking, bird-watching, even simple gardening encourage personal exploration and improvement, provide opportunities for individual growth and analytical thinking, and enable kids to form a sense of stewardship and responsibility.
Rather than giving kids an endless supply of digital “lives” to expend in a video game, exploring nature allows them to understand realistic concepts of cause and effect, geometry, and scientific thinking. A great local resource for connecting children to nature is the Irvine Nature Center. The exhibit space and trail system are free and open to the public weekdays from 9-5. Irvine offers weekly story time with an animal theme (Fridays at 10:00, free), an outdoor classroom space (free for members), and a nature-based pre-school curriculum (cost varies) among other family-oriented activities designed to encourage a heightened connection to nature.