Monday, March 31, 2008

Get Out! Kids Crave Nature

In the first days of spring, I’m thinking about kids. For me, growing up in postwar subdivision on the edge of a forest, spring meant time to head back out into the woods. But that’s an anomaly today, and there’s been a lot of attention paid to the state of childhood in postmodern America. Sadly, little of it is good.

Since we’re so busy making sure no child is left behind, our kids are over-tested, overstressed and over-programmed-- if this is Tuesday, it must be French lessons and a piano recital. Headlines pile up like snowdrifts noting increased rates of obesity, depression, asthma, autism, attention-deficit disorder, and worse; today’s parents have been nicknamed “helicopters” for how we hover around our children assisting them in every single decision they make.

Then there’s the whole technology piece: kids spend more time immersed in the iWorld of laptops, cable TV, IM, iPods, and more. The Kaiser Family Foundation noted that the average 10-year-old spends more than 45 hours a week—essentially a full-time job—consuming electronic media.

Visitation to national parks is declining. There’s been a 30 percent decrease in bicycle riding. Many schools have curtailed, even cut, free time, and school commitment to outdoor play has dwindled. The percentage of children who live within a mile of school and walk or bike there has declined nearly 25 percent in the past 30 years. In one survey, 71 percent of adults report that they walked or rode a bike to school when they were children, but only 22 percent of children do so today. Children predominantly play at home, with their activities monitored and controlled by adults; only 3 percent have a high degree of mobility and freedom in how and where they play.

From 1997 to 2003, there was a 50 percent decline in the proportion of children who spent time in such outside activities as hiking, walking, fishing, beach play, and gardening. Children’s free play declined more than seven hours a week from 1981 to 1997, and an additional two hours in the next decade—that’s a loss of nine hours a week over a 25-year period.

But a movement is slowly building momentum to combat these trends. Richard Louv, journalist and author of the much-discussed Last Child in the Woods, coined the phrase “nature-deficit disorder” to describe the growing disconnect between children and nature. And he’s been getting a lot of attention. A Children and Nature Network has been created to support his book’s work (, and disseminate research about this topic. Many states, including Pennsylvania, are considering No Child Left Inside legislation to encourage, even mandate outdoor education, the Forest Service launched a More Kids in the Woods initiative, and the Secretary of the Interior has challenged his national parks to reconnect children and nature.

It turns out that research is also revealing the importance of nature to children, and the restorative tonic that nature is. Kids who grow up immersed in nature have less issues with ADD and depression, and outdoor play reduces incidence of obesity, which is connected to heart disease and diabetes. “Children are smarter, more cooperative, happier and healthier when they have frequent and varied opportunities for free and unstructured play in the out-of-doors,” states the Children and Nature Network’s online research paper.

And check this out: students score higher on standardized tests when natural environments are integral to schools’ curricula. Leave no child behind? Fine. Get them outdoors.

In addition, studies indicate green plants and play yards reduce children’s stress. Free play in natural areas enhances children’s cognitive flexibility, problem-solving ability, creativity, self-esteem, even self-discipline. “Natural spaces and materials stimulate children’s limitless imaginations and serve as the medium of inventiveness and creativity,” says Robin Moore, an international authority on the design of environments for children’s play, learning, and education.

There’s even evidence that growing up in a neighborhood filled with trees leads to healthier, happier kids. Hospitals have long known that people recuperating in a room with a view of greenspace recover sooner, leave earlier, and return less frequently. In a British study, 71 percent of people with mental health disorders reported that taking a walk decreased their depression and tension. Wilderness therapy is catching on as new cure for mental illness.

The more we research the issue, the clearer the trend becomes: humans evolved in the natural world, and our growing disconnection to that world comes at the peril of both people and nature. We need this information now more than ever, as other lines of research continually indicate the extent of the decay within natural systems, with temperature and ocean levels rising, ice sheets melting, glaciers disappearing, rivers drying, deserts spreading, forests vanishing, coral reefs bleaching, and so on.

So get out! Grab the kids, head to a greenspace, put down a picnic blanket, and let the kids play. Let them get wet and muddy. Let them pull up a log and look for ants. Let them take time to smell the roses. Literally.

Just get out. There’s tonic in them there hills.

Monday, March 17, 2008

The Real March Madness

At 1:48 a.m. this Wednesday night, while you are tucked snugly in bed, it will happen: the sun will stand directly above the equator, a vertical shaft of sunlight striking the earth’s midpoint. Ding dong, the winter witch is dead, spring is here, and you know what that means:

March Madness.

Yup, hoopheads are pouring over their brackets, office pools are bursting with bets from some 3 million participants, ESPN is all roundball all the time, Internet chat rooms are on fire (“Tennessee was robbed!”) and today’s water cooler conversations revolve around fierce discussions over whether Coppin State cops a steal over Mt. St. Mary’s in tonight’s inaugural game to become the 64th team to make it into the tournament.

Who will be this year’s Cinderella team—Belmont, Austin Peay? Will Gonzaga be the next, well, Gonzaga? Can Cornell, this year’s Ivy League sacrificial lamb, advance past the first round? Who’s got the easier road to the Final Four, North Carolina or Memphis? Will Butler beat South Alabama, or Washington win over Winthrop—and what is a Winthrop anyway?

Meanwhile, that same vertical shaft of sunlight is shaking up the natural world. Already, the first crocuses have begun opening, the advance guard in an exquisitely timed march of flowers that unfolds all spring. In order, forsythia, daffodil, tulip, iris—each searching for its moment in the sun—pushes petals up to the sky.

In forests, a similar drama unfolds, as ephemeral spring wildflowers like trillium and trout lily, Quaker ladies and Dutchman’s breeches, Jack-in-the-pulpit and Solomon’s seal race to absorb the sun’s rays, seduce bees and get pollinated before trees leaf out and darken the forest floor, shading that precious sunlight.

While we got Cardinals, Jayhawks, Eagles and Owls flying through this year’s brackets, in nature, migrating birds are undergoing their own rite of spring, parading through in a progression of color, red-winged blackbirds now, ruby-throated hummingbirds later. Waves of woodland warblers—tiny but unbelievably beautiful creatures wearing the most extraordinary coats of many colors—pass through like clockwork, pine and prairie warblers soon, blackpolls bringing up the rear at season’s end. They’re all heading to nesting grounds north of here, only visiting the region for a few days on their journeys north and south. Blink, and they’re gone.

And butterflies will soon awaken and return: mourning cloaks first, painted ladies next, swallowtails after that, monarchs much later.

That’s the real March madness, that here we are, only moments into the nascent spring, having survived yet another (admittedly mild) winter, and instead of diving into the great outdoors to search for celandine poppy and scarlet tanagers, we’re glued to the tube hoping Western Kentucky upsets Drake. Seeds are sprouting all over outside, but we’re jammed into bars screaming at big screens over the seedings of our favorite teams: Texas should have been number 1! I mean, really?

That’s also part of our madness, that I can mention scarlet tanager, and likely as not no image comes to your mind—yet if you saw one, it would take your breath away. Smaller than a robin, with bright red body and jet black wings, the contrast makes your heart stop when you see it. We can analyze picks, posts and zone defenses, but when it comes to ecological knowledge—the stuff that really matters—we are clueless.

Sure, it would be amazing if a number 16 seed finally makes it to the Final Four. Sure, a three-point buzzer-beater is really cool, no matter what school does it. Sure, that Tyler Hansbrough from the Tar Heels is quite a player. But though Tyler bleeds Carolina blue, he ain’t no bleeding heart, a wildflower that blooms about the same time the finals will be held in San Antonio. You can watch Tyler on Tivo, but the bleeding heart doesn’t blossom long.

The real flower show starts this weekend at a forest near you. But we’re stuck inside filling out brackets.

Which is just madness.

Unless the final is Villanova-Temple. OK, that would be pure madness too, and then, even the flowers can wait.

Wednesday, March 5, 2008

Vampire Appliances: Draining Your Wallet, Warming the World

Everyone is concerned about global warming—but everyone tends to look elsewhere, outside their own home, to find the solutions to the looming crisis.

Trouble is, with global warming, Dorothy’s right, there’s no place like home—like searching your own house to rid it of energy-sucking vampire appliances.

A recent study by Cornell University discovered that the average home contains at least 20 appliances that suck power all day and all night, even when they’re “off.” These appliances drain our pockets of $3 billion annually, averaging 200 bucks per household. In fact, seven power plants alone are dedicated to producing power for America’s vampires, spewing greenhouse gases all the while.

Your TV set continues pulling power even when it’s off, so it can await a signal from the remote. Microwaves and ovens stay on forever, powering the clock; in fact, microwaves can use more juice running the clock than actually warming food. Alarm systems, clock radios, answering machines, stereos, computer monitors, even garage door openers—all these stay on 24/7.

New houses are designed with special counters lined with plugs so the family can recharge its fleet of cell phones. The rechargers often stay plugged in all day, adding to your bill.

California—of course, who else?—is considering legislation requiring more efficient appliances. That’s critical—these appliances just use too much.

But there are a million ways you can personally lessen your carbon footprint. And while there is no silver bullet, pulling the plug on your own house’s vampires is a good beginning. Stake out your position on global warming. Zap a vampire today.