Wild Activities Lead Kids to Environmental Stewardship

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Tompkins Weekly – June 28, 2010
By Sharon Anderson

Does play mean a romp in the park or hours in front of a video game for the children in your life? During my school years, my playground was the woods across the street. They seemed a huge magic area of trees, birds and squirrels. My visits back as an adult reveal a less grand scale – the woods look small and ordinary. Yet I loved looking under rocks, catching brightly color leaves before they fell to the ground and studying the varied details of snowflakes. These activities are the kinds of informal outdoor play that lead children to grow up caring about the environment.

Early childhood nature activities are an excellent predictor of environmental stewardship among adults, according to Nancy Wells and Krist Lekies at Cornell University. Their study found that gardening, formal environmental education programs and other outdoor activities helped shaped positive environmental attitudes and behaviors to some extent. They were not nearly as powerful as activities categorized as “wild play”, such as exploring in the woods, hiking, camping, fishing and hunting. Free play nature experiences before the age of 11 were still memorable and continued to shape the choices of adults.

Unstructured play in the out-of-doors benefits children– they are smarter, more cooperative and healthier overall. Mental health benefits include creativity, problem-solving, focus and self-discipline. Social benefits include cooperation, flexibility, and self-awareness. Emotional benefits include decreased stress, reduced aggression and increased happiness. Reductions in childhood obesity is linked to outdoor play and green neighborhoods. “For children in densely populated cities, the greener the neighborhood, the lower the risk of obesity. Our new study of over 3,800 inner city children revealed that living in areas with green space has a long-term positive impact on children’s weight and thus health,” said Gilbert C. Liu, M.D., assistant professor of pediatrics at the Indiana University School of Medicine. Furthermore vegetation improves aesthetics, reduces pollution and keeps things cooler, making the outside a more attractive place to play, walk or run.”

Time outside in nature awakens the senses with smells, sounds, textures to touch, and three-dimensional space to move through. TV and computer games rob children of this complex sensory experience. Prolonged time spent in front of a screen early in life contributes to attention deficit disorder (ADD), and, conversely, outdoor play can calm ADD behaviors.

Spending time in nature may also increase caring. People put a higher value on helping others and forming meaningful relationships than on material gains and fame after nature experiences. “Now we’ve found nature brings out more social feelings, more value for community and close relationships. People are more caring when they’re around nature,” says Richard Ryan, a professor of psychology, psychiatry and education at the University of Rochester.

The key to giving children regular opportunities to be in the out-of- doors is in the backyard and the neighborhood park.

Be a role model for the children in your life
Your excitement and curiosity is contagious. Model respect for nature through simple everyday activities like pausing to watch a sunset or commenting on the different texture of bark on the trees you can see – you don’t even have to know what kind they are. Sharing your interest in nature is the best motivation a child can have to participate.

Plan for regular time outdoors
Take a 20- minute walk around the neighborhood after dinner. Saying hello to neighbors, pointing out flowers or birds, and catching up on the days’ events is a great way to spend quality time together. Or plan a surprise outdoor trip once a month with the children in your life. A regular time demonstrates that you value your time together and making it a surprise builds kids’ excitement for the next adventure. Try a visit to Ithaca’s Children Garden, a picnic at Stewart Park, a bike ride on a recreation trail or go camping in your own backyard or a nearby state park. Whenever possible, encourage and allow for independent, spontaneous exploration to help youth develops new skills, gain confidence and foster long-term environmental stewardship.

From Toddlers to Teens
Introduce very young children to nature by setting up a blanket or playpen outside. Keep toys to a minimum and point out birdsongs, the sound and feel of the wind. Tickle with a piece of grass or stroke a cheek with a fuzzy leaf. Teens can get active with community projects such as creek cleanup and water monitoring or find nature-related paying or volunteer jobs. Recreation departments, YMCAs, schools, or churches often have summer programs.

Scrapbooks and Field Guides
These walks can be further enhanced by keeping a journal or scrapbook with stories, drawings, photographs, or specimens like pressed leaves. Field guides can help learn alongside your child as you identify things.

Visit ccetompkins.org/camp for a list of summer camps Cooperative Extension offers. You can find everything from nature exploration as part of the urban camps to near emersion in nature at Primitive Pursuits programs.

Sharon Anderson is the Environment Program Leader for Cornell Cooperative Extension of Tompkins County.

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