I've noticed it before. It's not always dramatic, but it's undeniably there. The outdoor environment has an affect on all of us and it's usually positive.
"I've seen it again and again," explained Ed Kanze, a guide and naturalist from Bloomingdale. "When my kids play at a playground, it's a flat experience. But in the woods, they are cooperative and always discovering things. They get along so much better!"
At a playground, kids may argue over who gets the swing, yet in the woods they'll bounce together on the end of a long log. The difference between the two environments is startling.
The major difference is that the majority of playgrounds are a place that breed competition, whether it's a game of kickball or tag; or an argument over who gets on the swing and who has to push.
In the outdoors, children quickly recognize the need to stick together, to cooperate at play. Maybe such behavior comes from a long forgotten instinct which remains deeply embedded in our psyche and is necessary for our survival.
However, I believe this behavior is more likely due to the fact that outdoor adventure inspires cooperation, the sharing of discoveries and encourages the care of fellow travelers. Whether such actions are the result of our biological make-up or a learned behavior, they are obvious to anyone who works or plays in the woods. And they should be fostered!
This notion is at the heart of an active and ever growing number of regional, national and international efforts to reconnect children and the outdoors. These efforts received a tremendous boost with the publication of author Richard Louv's book, Last Child in the Woods.
As Louv explains, "When people talk about the disconnect between children and nature-if they are old enough to remember a time when outdoor play was the norm-they almost always tell stories about their own childhoods: this tree house or fort, that special woods or ditch or creek or meadow-those "places of initiation," in the words of naturalist Bob Pyle, where they may have first sensed with awe and wonder the largeness of the world seen and unseen."
The movement has progressed from theories to initiatives and finally to law. As silly as it sounds, the state of California enacted a 'Children's Outdoor Bill of Rights' last year. Elsewhere, Texas has developed a 'Life is Better Outside' campaign, Connecticut has a formal 'No Child Left Inside' program and the U.S. Forest Service is launched a 'More Kids in the Woods' effort.
What would prompt the U.S.Forest Service to act? At some U.S. National Parks, overall visits by Americans have dropped by 25 percent since 1987, few people get far from their cars and camping is on the decline.
"I think we need to get out there and enjoy it.", explained Dirk Kempthone, US Secretary of the Interior,"If you can be the ambassador of the outdoors and get a child to begin to experience this; their imagination can be expanded while enjoying greater activity and greater health."
He continued,"I think we should take a break from our Blackberries in order to encourage the nation's children to pick blackberries."
Certainly, there are risks associated with outdoor travel. Nature is dynamic and the outdoors can be very intimidating, but in terms of comparative risks; the benefits of the nature-child reunion are considerable.
Sure, there are risks outside our homes. But there are also risks in raising children under virtual protective house arrest which present threats to their independent judgment , creativity, self confidence and value of place, to their ability to feel awe and wonder, to their sense of stewardship for the earth and, most immediately, threats to their psychological and physical health.
A rapid increase of childhood obesity in this country has lead health-care leaders to worry that the current generation of children may be the first since World War II to die at an earlier age than their parents.
The physical benefits are obvious, but other benefits are more subtle and no less important. Take the development of cognitive functioning. According to a range of studies, children in outdoor-education settings show increases in self-esteem, problem solving, and motivation to learn. "Natural spaces and materials stimulate children's limitless imaginations," says Robin Moore, an international authority on the design of environments for children's play, learning, and education, "and serve as the medium of inventiveness and creativity."
Take the time to get outdoors with a child this winter. I'd far prefer that my kid is on the mountain than at the mall. Take a look at California's Children's Outdoor Bill of Rights; does it fit your family's beliefs?
The California Children's Outdoor Bill of Rights recommends a fundamental list of experiences that every child would benefit from experiencing, before entering high school.
Numerous studies document that children who do these things are healthier, do better in school, have better social skills and self-image, and lead more fulfilled lives.
Objective: That every child in California, by the completion of their 14th year, have the opportunity to experience each of the activities listed within the California Children's Outdoor Bill of Rights.
Every child should have the opportunity to:
1. Discover California's past
2. Splash in the water
3. Play in a safe place
4. Camp under the stars
5. Explore nature
6. Learn to swim
7. Play on a team
8. Follow a trail
9. Catch a fish
10. Celebrate their heritage
Joe Hackett is a guide and sportsman residing in Ray Brook. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org