What if our children could recognize the birds, plants and insects in their backyards as well as they know the brands of shoes on their feet or the secret weapons they need to get to the next level in a video game? When is the last time you saw a child climb a tree, build an outdoor fort or keep a nature journal? If you have seen such a rare event, you and that child are lucky.
According to the Kaiser Family Foundation, most kids under 6 spend about two hours a day in front of a screen. Kids and teens 8 to 18 spend nearly eight hours a day watching TV, doing non-academic work on a computer, or playing video games. As ecology educators, we ask ourselves, "If the sounds, sights, textures, and smells of nature no longer excite the senses of children, how will they come to value the living environment?"
In addition to replacing outdoor play with indoor screen time, most children have fewer opportunities for outdoor study at school. Many elementary school teachers are forced to spend less time teaching science, including nature studies, so they can focus on math and English language arts. These are the skills measured in the tests federally mandated by the No Child Left Behind Act. Schools are under intense pressure to increase student performance.
Positive Impact Multifaceted
Unfortunately, this comes at a cost that goes beyond a diminishing understanding of the natural world. Research studies have shown that, in addition to increasing people's positive attitude toward the environment, meaningful time spent outdoors can have a positive effect on self-esteem, attention spans, short-term memory, and cooperation and conflict resolution skills. It can also reduce childhood obesity and the symptoms of attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder. Our desire to "feel connected" to each other is validated through Facebook and Second Life, but these virtual communities likely do not provide the benefits of time outdoors.
In recognition of the benefits of outdoor studies, a coalition of concerned citizens has crafted an amendment to the highly contested No Child Left Behind Act - the No Child Left Inside Act. This act, which has passed the House and will be presented to the Senate this year, will ensure that environmental education is incorporated in all core subject areas in schools. The act also mandates environmental education training for teachers and provides incentives for states to increase their students' environmental literacy.
We place our children in front of screens so they will be better prepared for a technology-pumped society. A complete disconnect from the virtual world is impossible and undesirable, but there must be a way to strike a balance.
All students would benefit from creative outdoor play, such as a stroll along the shores of the Hudson, inquiry of their schoolyard ecosystems, or a hike in the woods. Adults would benefit from outdoor time, too. Yet, our priorities often place the virtual world above the real world.
So what can we do? Call your senator and ask them to support the No Child Left Inside Act.
At home, try practicing the new Secular Sabbath, by unplugging everything one day a week. Suddenly, there is time for a walk in the park, a picnic, or a conversation with neighbors. In this extra time, you can also go to public events and educational programs held at the Cary Institute of Ecosystem Studies and other like-minded organizations.
Turn Off The Gadgets
You are likely reading this on a Sunday morning. So here is our advice: Finish your paper, turn off the phones, the computers and anything else that beeps for your attention - and go outside. Take a deep breath and look around. Find tracks in the snow. Hunt down the best icicle in your neighborhood. Try observing birds and figuring out what they are eating in the middle of winter. Or just grab a sled and have some fun. Repeat, at least once a week.
Kim Notin and Cornelia Harris are educators at the Cary Institute of Ecosystem Studies in Millbrook. Dr. Alan R. Berkowitz heads the Cary Institute's education program.