Shift in our Connection to the Natural Environment

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By Graham Little

Richard Louv, author of Last Child in the Woods: Saving Our Children from Nature-Deficit Disorder, describes a world in which our connection to the natural environment has shifted. He states that, “nature is something to watch, consume, to wear – to ignore. A recent television ad depicts a four-wheel-drive SUV racing along a breathtaking beautiful mountain stream – while in the backseat two children watch a movie on a flip-down video screen, oblivious to the landscape and water beyond the windows.” Scenes like this have become all too commonplace in our society as children become more and more removed from the natural world. In our schools, we see more emphasis placed on math and technology and less on learning about our natural environment leading us to wonder exactly what affect this is having on our children and their development.

Research has shown that the decline in outdoor play has contributed to the rise in obesity rates as well as the rise of various social and emotional problems including negative moods and reduced attention spans. As children spend more time indoors, connected to technology and the internet, and less time engaged in free or structured play in the natural environment we see the negative effects of nature-deficit disorder or NDD. NDD, while not a formal medical term, can be detrimental to our children’s overall growth and well-being.

Outdoor play has proven to strengthen the immune system and well as improve Vitamin D levels which can help prevent heart disease and diabetes. In their research, the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) has stated that outdoor, physical activity can help reduce stress and have positive impacts on anxiety and attention deficit disorder. This is critical is a society where are children are continuing to have greater pressure placed on them to perform academically to be successful. The AAP also states that children who experience outdoor play achieve more at school and demonstrate more advanced self-confidence, resiliency and self-advocacy. The latter of these has proved to help children develop healthy relationships and learn leadership skills.

The cure for NDD is not as simple as one may think. We live in a society which has made unstructured outdoor play scary. Through images on TV, and messages from well-meaning advocacy groups, we see nature as a place where our children are at risk from injury or harm from strangers. Where can we find an environment where our children are encouraged to explore the natural environment but parents can feel safe that their children will be supervised and safe? The answer is summer camp. Whether it be day camp or overnight camp, summer camp is a place where children are given the freedom to explore the natural world in an environment where they can feel nurtured and develop healthy peer relationships.

Peg Smith, former CEO of the American Camp Association, states that “camp plays a more important role today in fostering children’s connection to nature than in the past. While children have fewer and fewer opportunities to be outdoors, the camp experience advances the outdoor learning environment.” Sending your child to camp can be a life-altering experience that will not only improve their physical health but also help them develop the necessary skills to be successful in school and beyond.

JCYS Camp Henry Horner, located on 180 acres on Wooster Lake in the northern Chicago suburb of Ingleside, has embraced their role in combatting NDD. Not only does the wooded site provide the perfect environment for children to be surrounded by nature but in Summer 2018 they will offer expanded programming through their Outdoor Skills Lab (OSL). During their time in the OSL campers will learn about the natural environment through experiential activities surrounding a variety of topics including animal studies, aquatic environments and tree identification. In addition to environmental education, campers also will learn Outdoor Living Skills in the OSL. These skills include, knot tying, how to safely build a fire for cooking, shelter building, archery and outdoor safety/first aid. A key component of the OSL will take place on the camp’s High Sierra Adventure Center where campers will practice teambuilding skills on the challenge course, climb on the rock wall, overcome fears on the high ropes course and fly through the woods on the zip line.

More information about combatting Nature-Deficit Disorder and planning for summer camp can be found online. We recommend the following sites:

The Children and Nature Network – Research and Community Networks

Richard Louv – Author

American Camp Association – Resources for Campers and Families.

  • Graham Little holds a Master’s Degree in Recreation Administration – Outdoor Pursuits from the George Williams College of Aurora University, has over 20 years of camp operations and management experience and currently serves as the Director of JCYS Camp Henry Horner in Ingleside, IL.
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