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
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
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.
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
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.
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
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."
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.
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.
Mexico, the tide has started to turn. The push toward outdoor
educational experiences has started to brighten.
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.
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."
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.
PE, we have to put it (outdoor education) back into the schools,"
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
Care for a small animal such as a fish or guinea
Go hiking, camping or fishing with your child.
Mexico's State Parks.
Get your school to connect to an educational
Contact your legislator. Tell them outdoor education is
important to you.
and Nature Network, the movement to connect children to
Wildlife Federation's Green Hour
international organization, Take A Child
Sierra Club's Youth Programs
Club New Mexico
Bridges to the Outdoors, Sierra Club initiative in New
Mexico State Parks
Contact Christy Tafoya, State Parks Education
Program Manager, at 505-476-3384, or at
New Mexico Audubon Society
Education Association of New
of Albuquerque's sustainability website, with links to Open Space