As a child, Sandra Muñoz-Weingarten remembers trying to outfox her mother.
“She would call us in for dinner, and we would say we couldn’t hear her. So she got this big dinner bell, and we acted like we didn’t hear that. Then she gave me a watch to wear and said, 'You have to be home by this time,’ and I remember we turned the watch back so we could say we were on time and not technically be in trouble.”
Muñoz-Weingarten and her playmates weren’t breaking curfew to do anything particularly scandalous; they were stretching the truth simply to stay outdoors a little longer.
“When I was a kid, my parents said, 'Go out and play,’ and we did,” says the chief naturalist at Chandler’s new Environmental Education Center.
It’s a line a lot of adults may recall from childhood, when they wore dirt paths through grassy fields, played in wooded lots behind their subdivisions and dug holes in the mud for no particular reason.
But for many of today’s kids, it’s a different story; some experts believe children aren’t spending time outdoors the way generations of children always have, thanks to busier schedules; the pull of artificial entertainment from television, video games, computers and cell phones; and parental fears of abduction. Instead they’re shuttled from one activity to another, with homework, TV shows and Nintendo Wii filling the gaps between school, lessons and practice.
It’s a phenomenon author Richard Louv calls “nature-deficit disorder,” a term he coined to describe society’s growing disconnect from the natural world. Louv, recipient of the 2008 Audubon Medal, began noticing children’s lack of free-range time outdoors in conversations with parents, teachers and children across the country. In 2005, he brought together those findings and what sparse scientific research there was on the subject in the best-selling book, “Last Child in the Woods.” The book was re-released this year with updated research and a practical field guide.
Louv, who will appear at a Scottsdale conference for parks and recreation professionals later this month, says children who spend all their time in front of glowing screens or adhering to a datebook are missing out on the benefits of the great outdoors.
“Studies that have emerged in the last dozen years or so show a relationship between nature and creativity, physical health, cognitive skills, the ability to learn, the full use of the senses. All of those things are enhanced when we have more nature in our lives, and that’s particularly true of children in their developing years,” he says.
Scientific evidence to prove children are spending less time outdoors is still growing, but anecdotal evidence is ample, from pediatricians who report treating fewer broken bones from falling out of trees and seeing more overweight children, to parents who report their kids have no interest in unplugging from MP3 players and text messaging marathons to kill a few unstructured hours outside.
The problem with that type of passive entertainment, Louv says, is bigger than simply missing out on pretty views.
“What we’re missing is the human connection to physical, psychological and spiritual health through nature. Children aren’t being allowed time and freedom for the imaginative play, make-believe, and stimulation that comes from exploring their natural surroundings. That part of themselves isn’t being allowed to develop, and that part of them is essential.”
Some think connecting with nature is also critical for the future of nature itself.
Brennan Basler, interpretive ranger at Usery Mountain Regional Park northeast of Mesa, says he often ends his programs by reminding people that getting out into nature leads to love of nature, and when you love something, you want to protect it.
“If you don’t have that connection to nature, you have no experience with it, no reason to value it,” he says.
Likewise, Muñoz-Weingarten is certain she wound up in an outdoorsy career because of time spent camping and playing outside as a kid.
Louv wonders how many children can grow up without those kinds of connections before our culture loses its memory of a time when going outside to play was common and expected, but he’s hopeful — based on overwhelmingly positive response to the book and the movement it has spurred — that nature will not be forgotten.
“One of a child’s first windows to awe and wonder and awareness of a larger world happens through nature, and how can we take that away from them?” he says. “A lot of people are realizing it’s a good thing to grow up hands dirty, feet wet, really associating nature with joy.”