Educators try to connect kids with outdoors: Too much video smothers innate need for nature
Erica Burrus - Journal Prince Charles Yakubu leads a small group of students in jumping across rocks in a stream at the Deer Lake area in Forest Park. The students, all members of the after-school bike club at Compton-Drew Investigative Learning Center Middle School, regularly explore nature during their rides.
By Shawn Clubb
Monday, June 1, 2009 5:11 PM CDT
By Shawn Clubb
On a nice summer day, Thomas Nolan would look outside and say "Who cares?"His mother would tell him to go outdoors. He'd ignore her and sit in front of the television or play video games.For the 13-year-old North County boy, nature held no interest.
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"I'd be like 'This is a stupid plant. Who cares about it?'" he said. "'Stupid bug.' I'd step on it."Thomas was not alone. Educators and conservationists across the nation have become aware of most children's lack of exposure to nature. They call it Nature Deficit Disorder. The term was coined by Richard Louv in his book "Last Child in the Woods.""It goes back to the idea that we as a species have an innate need for nature," said Lydia Toth, senior manager for education at the Shaw Nature Reserve in Gray Summit.Toth has noticed children becoming more tentative about nature for the last several years. She also has witnessed the documented increase in childhood obesity, attention deficit disorders and hyperactivity.Conservationists additionally fear there will be no future stewards of wild lands and wildlife if today's children do not develop a love of nature."When folks in my shoes retire, who's going to take over?" Toth asked.The problem lies in breaking the trend of people spending more time indoors and plugged in to television, computers and video games, said James H. Wilson, the E. Desmond Lee Professor of Experiential and Family Education at the University of Missouri-St. Louis.Conservation educators throughout the nation increased their efforts to impress upon school administrators and teachers the need for nature education. It's often hard to get teachers to buy into the idea that children need nature and incorporate it into the curriculum, Toth said."The kids embrace it if they're given the opportunity, but if they don't have a teacher that gets it, they don't get outdoors," she said.The Green Center in University City has worked for years with the University City School District and the St. Louis Public Schools to bring elementary school and middle school students to its property, which includes 30 acres of woodland, prairie and wetlands."It's so obvious that students aren't comfortable being outdoors; it's such a foreign environment to them," said Jan Oberkramer, education and volunteer manager at The Green Center. "(But) it doesn't take long for kids to become comfortable in it."Wilson has worked for years with the Herbert Hoover and Mathews-Dickey boys and girls clubs, introducing children to hiking, fishing and exploring nature. Wilson, Toth and Oberkramer all said it's most important to give children unstructured time in nature, where they can do what interests them.To that end, Toth has taken the lead of a new coalition of 22 entities called the Gateway Children's Nature Connection. The coalition is developing a website geared to serve as a clearinghouse for information about nature activities and events happening in the region.Thomas, the boy who cared little about nature, now spends more time outdoors. He used to pass when offered the chance to go camping with his Boy Scout troop. Now he camps often.He had his mind changed this year after joining an after-school bike club at Compton-Drew Investigative Learning Center Middle School in St. Louis city, which he attends through the inter-district transfer agreement. He has lost 10 pounds biking through Forest Park and now appreciates the birds, bugs and foxes he sees outside. He describes a peaceful vista he encountered while biking on the Katy Trail."It's actually a beautiful sight," Thomas said.Joe Torrisi, a community education specialist with the St. Louis Public Schools, helped start the club almost 10 years ago to combat childhood obesity. The club added nature education after a Katy Trail ride when Torrisi found a student crying because the wilderness scared her. Both a physical education teacher and a science teacher now ride with the club."We're getting them outdoors breathing the fresh air, seeing nature and interacting with it, not just driving by it," Torrisi said. "That enriches the whole experience."The science teacher, Donna Callahan, said her students at first groused about going outside, but now come back to her after a weekend and talk about what they discovered."I saw this. I saw that," she said they tell her. "What is it? What is it?"This exposure of one group of children to nature can have ripple effects, as Torrisi has seen with the bike club."Through the years, that gets passed on," he said. "Nature and the outdoor experience is what they verbally pass on to the next kids."