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No Child Left Inside:
Fall Family Fun
By AILEEN O’CATHERINE

In 2005, journalist, educator and child advocate Richard Louv published Last Child in the Woods: Saving Our Children From Nature-Deficit Disorder. In the book, Louv examines the reasons for and the consequences of the decreasing amount of time children spend in the natural world. He termed this lack of connection “Nature Deficit Disorder.” Although the label isn't a clinical diagnosis, it remains real. Children increasingly fail to experience the sights, sounds and smells of the natural world.
Reasons for the decline are layered. Fear of crime keeps children close to home and under adult supervision. Increasing demands on family time, especially in families with two working parents, push children toward more structured, supervised environments such as after school care. Increased litigation creates schools that restrict play in the few trees that dot the schoolyard. The disturbing underlying message, though, is that nature is dangerous.
Children also spend increasing amounts of time indoors. Our culture of television, movies, computers and the Internet all vie for their attention. Some actually prefer this uber world. Nature, these kids might argue, is boring.
Yet free play, and play that allows children to interact with their senses in the natural world, is more important than ever. In order to face the challenges of global warming and precarious resources, our children must first have a vested interest in what they are meant to help save. Louv and other environmental leaders worry that this lack of connection to nature might result in a generation that fears the very environment they have to steward. And a generation that doesn't interact with nature will have no deep interest in preserving it for others.
Perhaps more importantly are the positive effects nature has upon children, effects they shouldn't do without. Research shows children who regularly encounter natural settings are calmer, more centered, and less impulsive. Children diagnosed with ADHD and ADD benefit from regular interactions with the outdoors. Environmental educators and outdoor enthusiasts have long touted the positive effects of children interacting with nature. Higher self esteem. A greater sense of connection. Some research even points toward the roots of adult creativity coming from childhood experiences with the natural world. And teachers able to connect subjects such as science and math to outdoor settings extol the benefits of creating a richer, deeper, more meaningful learning experience.

Solutions
Environmental education programs have long been a way to connect children to nature. And for the past 30 years, such programs have grown. On the eastern edge of the Sandia Mountains near Albuquerque, every 5th grade APS student visits the Sandia Mountain Natural History Center's 128 acre environmental education center to connect with the outdoor world. At the Rio Grande Nature Center, a New Mexico State Park located along Albuquerque's bosque, teachers trained in the Bosque Education Guide can bring the river to their classrooms or their classrooms to the river. In Santa Fe, Audubon New Mexico's Randall Davey Center connects children to the outdoors through programs in its classroom, or its large, outdoor "campus." It also educates year-round statewide with its Birds for a Purpose outreach program. These are just a few of the state's outdoor education programs.
But despite such programs, environmental education faces a challenge. Despite the need to connect children with nature, and the need for students educated in environmental science to help counteract global changes, environmental programs face challenges nationwide. Many educational programs have been scaled back to meet the needs created by No Child Left Behind (NCLB). Environmental education programs have suffered as a result. And for all the programs, funding, and lack of it, is an issue.

National Programs
Yet a counter trend has emerged. Spurred on by a grassroots movement, parents, schools and environmental agencies are initiating programs to reconnect children with the outdoors. Part of the push comes from Louv's work. Once the public could put a name on the trend, it could mobilize. And with growing public support, environmental agencies could push to reinstate educational programs.
Nationally, the National Wildlife Federation (NWF) has instituted the Green Hour, urging parents and educators to set aside "Green Time" so children can connect with the natural world. The international organization Take A Child Outside held its first "Take A Child Outside Week" this year. And the Sierra Club has long provided ways to connect kids with nature. According to a Sierra Club study, outdoor education programs increase student standardized test scores in math and science; reduce discipline problems; and increase teacher and student satisfaction for the learning process. Another outcome is increased resource stewardship, important for the long term.
But in New Mexico, the Sierra Club has done even more. Michael Casaus is Youth Representative of the Sierra Club's Building Bridges to the Outdoors (BBTO) program, one of the first in the nation. "Our long term goal is to ensure that every child in New Mexico is provided with an outdoor experience. There should be no child left inside," Casaus notes. The solutions can be simple. "Take a walk in a local park. Picnic in the back yard. Enjoy a local outing."
BBTO's coalition partners include environmental organizations, farmers, hunters, ranchers, health organizations, outdoor recreation groups, faith based initiatives, and ethnically diverse advocacy groups. BBTO and its partner agencies educate New Mexicans about the importance of the outdoors and a healthy lifestyle. And in his quest for funds, Casaus will engage public officials for solutions.
BBTO recently provided grants to five New Mexico organizations that will bring kids to the outdoors or the outdoors to kids.
"My job is coalition building and bringing in diverse groups," says Casaus. To that end, BBTO funds went to the National Indian Youth Leadership Program; Rivers and Birds; Rocky Mountain Youth Corps; the Sandia Mountain Natural History Center and the Santa Fe Mountain Center.
In New Mexico, the tide has started to turn. The push toward outdoor educational experiences has started to brighten.

The Education Connection
In 2005, New Mexico State Parks and the Public Education Department issued a joint study, "Making New Mexico Schools Work Outdoors – Educacion al Air Libre." The report demonstrates that interactive outdoor education improves student academic achievement and reduces disciplinary problems. Based on the report, the State Legislature endorsed the New Mexico Outdoor Classroom Initiative in 2005. And in 2007, it provided $250,000 in funds for the initiative to develop pilot programs.
The first of its kind in the nation, the Outdoor Classroom Initiative will bring schools to parks and parks to schools. Using nature centers, state and federal public lands, and local and state parks, environmental leaders want to ensure every child in the state is provided with an outdoor experience. It consists of four components: teacher training institutes and curriculum development; service learning; transportation funding; and educational materials.
Dave Simon is director of New Mexico State Parks. To him, the connection between the outdoors and the classroom is vital. "Schools create the pathways to the state's natural resources," he says.
The pilot phase for the initiative began in Dona Ana County earlier this year, providing every 5th grade classroom in Dona Ana County with a trip to the outdoors. About 4,700 students in Las Cruces, Gadsden and Hatch school districts will benefit.
Initial funds will go to areas that traditionally receive less attention but have ties to state parks and natural resources. The lower Rio Grande Valley, Clayton Lake, the lower Pecos Valley in Roswell and Artesia, the central Mora Valley, and the Four Corners areas will all benefit. Teacher trainings, curricula development, transportation grants and upgrading the Junior Ranger program will be key. State Parks will also make funds available competitively to nongovernmental agencies or nonprofits that run their own outdoor education programs. "And over 10 percent of funds will go to assessment," Simon says. Assessment will prove whether the programs work. "Our hypothesis is that outdoor learning helps kids socially, academically and emotionally. We'll devise methods to track that success."
Simon and Casaus agree the push for funding is vital to sustain any initiatives long term. A bill to create funding from a 1 percent excise tax on the purchase of televisions, videos and video games did not pass the 2007 State Legislature. But both remain hopeful.
"Like PE, we have to put it (outdoor education) back into the schools," says Simon.

Just a few ways to counter Nature Deficit Disorder:
Spend time outdoors on a regular basis, preferably daily.
Explore nature with your child. Walk the bosque or roll the hills in a nearby park.
Picnic with your child under a tree. Watch the ants.
Set up a backyard feeding station for birds.
Care for a small animal such as a fish or guinea pig.
Go hiking, camping or fishing with your child.
Visit New Mexico's State Parks.
Get your school to connect to an educational program.
Contact your legislator. Tell them outdoor education is important to you.

Resources
National
http://www.cnaturenet.org
Children and Nature Network, the movement to connect children to nature
http://www.nwf.org/outside
National Wildlife Federation's Green Hour
http://takeachildoutside.org
The international organization, Take A Child Outside
http://www.sierraclub.org/youth
The Sierra Club's Youth Programs

New Mexico
http://www.sierraclub.org/nm
Sierra Club New Mexico
http://www.sierraclub.org/youth/newmexico
Building Bridges to the Outdoors, Sierra Club initiative in New Mexico
http://www.emnrd.state.nm.us/PRD/Index.htm
New Mexico State Parks
Contact Christy Tafoya, State Parks Education Program Manager, at 505-476-3384, or at christy.tafoya@state.nm.us
http://nm.audubon.org
The New Mexico Audubon Society
http://www.eeanm.org
Environmental Education Association of New Mexico
http://www.cabq.gov/sustainability
City of Albuquerque's sustainability website, with links to Open Space

 

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