A child’s right to explore outdoors

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By Robert and Sonia Vogl
President and Vice President,
Illinois Renewable Energy Association

The annual earth day awards luncheon sponsored by Keep Northern Illinois Beautiful is an event we look forward to as an opportunity to interact with friends and to hear from speakers focused on environmental concerns.  This year’s keynote speaker, Richard Louv, spoke on A Nature Rich Life and suggested many in the audience could recall having a special place away from adults which remains in their hearts today. He feels today’s youth have too few opportunities to explore nature in a personal way and coined the term “nature deficit disorder” to describe a unwanted side effect of our electronic age.

He considers it a metaphor rather than a medical condition and lamented the fact that today’s youth spend roughly 54 hours per week interacting with television, computers and other electronic devices.  He went on to describe his childhood being filled with numerous explorations in the natural world.

Many of us remember our youth as a time when nature was integral to our lives. Non-school time belonged to us and our friends and most of it was spent in the outdoors with little adult guidance. We internalized our parents’ expectations to know right from wrong and to behave appropriately whether outdoors or indoors.

Louv considers the limited time youth are in contact with the natural world as an unwanted side effect of the technological age. Jerry Mander, a former advertising executive, is far less sanguine about the technological age. The gadgets capturing the attention of youth and displacing time spent outdoors in nature serve as the world’s greatest advertising delivery system promoting a continuous technological evolution which is destroying nature.

Louv expressed skepticism toward the current wave of educational reforms based on widespread adoption of technologies advocated by those selling software, video games and stealth student monitoring systems to our schools. The push for technology in education is accepted on faith rather than justified by studies establishing their merits.

When Sonia was teaching a field science class at Northern Illinois University, a dean suggested she teach the class using videos rather than spend time in the outdoors examining natural processes in the field. The dean was a computer oriented educator and felt simulated experiences were superior to direct experiences as educational tools.

Calls for educational efficiency and cost effectiveness further narrow the range of experiences for students and have led to cuts in music, art, physical education, recess, field trips and experiences in nature. To counteract this trend, Louv advocates that it should be considered a human right for children to have a positive connection to nature. Next September 4 grade students and their family members will be given free passes to explore any National Park or Federal Natural area as part of Federal Initiative called “Every Kid in the Park.” In order to secure bus transportation fund raising efforts will be undertaken.

Louv points to studies documenting the huge increase in attention deficit disorder in today’s young people and adults and the widespread use of medication to reduce the symptoms. Learning in the outdoors can break the tensions associated with too much screen time and the lack of physical activity while stimulating learning and creativity in students.

Drs. Robert and Sonia Vogl can be reached via e-mail at sonia@essex1.com.

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