By Larry J. Schweiger
Pittsburgh Current Columnist
On a flight to San Francisco, sitting next to me in the left window seat, was an unaccompanied boy who was about 10-years-old. His mom put him on the plane to visit his dad. As soon as our plane was over 10,000 feet, the boy broke out his Gameboy and settled in for an intense session.
After a couple of hours of this, the pilot came on the intercom, “Folks, off to our left is one of the best views you will ever see of the Grand Canyon.” I watched the boy. His eyes never left the Gameboy, not even for a second. He was so distracted by a gadget, that he had no interest in the wonders of nature on a grand scale. It occurred to me that I was witnessing first hand, an important American phenomenon that is having a profound impact on our children’s future and the future of nature itself.
There are many signs that something major – something profoundly different — is happening to the connection between American children and the outdoors.
What is happening to our connection to nature, and where has outdoor time gone? The signs are everywhere. As early as 2005, the Association for Childhood Education International reported that that U.S. children’s outdoor time was falling by 50% over previous generations. Another study published in Early Childhood at about the same time found that 85% of mothers reported that their children play outdoors less than they did as children. While 70% said they were once active outdoors as a child, just 31% of the mothers responded that their children are outdoors every day. This same study also found that children spend more time on sedentary indoor activities than they do on outdoor play.
With a growing dependency on cell phones, television, hand-held game gadgets, and home computers, things have only gotten worse. An even more unwelcome trend is that many schools are now sending iPads home with students.
I grew up when black-and-white television and rabbit ears were a thing. Pittsburgh had three commercial stations and one public TV channel. Mom rationed our time in front of our 13-inch Crosley and sent us out outside to play. The woods and cricks of Allegheny County are my alma mater. Most connect “alma mater” to their high school or college but the word originates from the Latin meaning “nourishing bountiful mother.” Nature has always been my nourishing place. Some of my earliest discoveries were in the forest near my North Hills home. Time spent in nature provided many subtle but life-changing lessons. As a boy, I spent nearly every free moment in the abandoned farm fields, meadows, and forests of Western Pennsylvania just 12 miles north of Pittsburgh.
What I knew about the world as a child was very simple then. Out of this simplicity comes clarity. Trees were for climbing. Strawberries were for picking. My most vivid childhood experiences were spent along Girty’s Run. We called it “the crick,” where we chased water striders and turned over rocks for crayfish. Empty jars with perforated lids were for catching crayfish, lightning bugs, or salamanders. I dug foxholes in the stream banks with my brothers. Each spring, when heavy snows melted, we constructed log and earthen dams to hold back floodwaters. The ceaseless chorus of spring peepers infused the night air of early spring.
Things were much simpler. We did not have air conditioners, so we slept outside on sultry summer nights and relished the occasional gentle air that cooled us. At the same time, a chorus of tree frogs, crickets, and katydids lulled us to sleep. I witnessed a nurturing robin with a worm in its mouth, limping along the trail, feigning injury drawing me away from her nestlings. I also learned that even plants could play tricks. Skunk cabbage blooms in the dead of winter and produces heat and a rotting flesh odor attracting carrion flies and other scavengers as early pollinators. Things are not always the way we first see them. What else does a child need to know about life?
Our many hours in nature were spontaneous and full of imagination. In the winter, we roamed the snowy woods tracking animals. In late summer, we browsed blackberry patches. We chopped aspens to build a log cabin using Dad’s bowsaw, axes, and other hand tools. We muddied many shoes and would be so dirty that mom made us strip down at the basement door and bath in the double-bottomed concrete and zinc-lined laundry tubs. If I were a child today, I’m suspect my parents would be prosecuted for raising free-ranging feral children.
Years ago, kids burned plenty of calories playing outdoors. Today, the average American child is said to spend only 4 to 7 minutes a day in unstructured play outdoors, and over 7 hours a day in front of a screen. Seventy-seven percent of parents surveyed reported they do not have time to spend outdoors with their children. I suspect that the increase in single-parent homes and shrinking middle class has not helped this.
Researchers are studying how the Nationwide childhood obesity epidemic may cause shorter lifespans for the next generation. They conclude that, while we have enjoyed increases in the expected lifespan for several decades, the lack of childhood activity and its extra pounds will actually shorten the average lifespan from three to five years. A study in the Journal of Pediatrics, “Physical Activity Recommendations for School-Age Youth” found that “our children are just not burning up those calories today.”
The Centers for Disease Control notes that an hour per day engaged in unstructured activity is the missing exercise ingredient. Diabetes is becoming one of America’s most serious, yet subtle, epidemics. Public health experts are now estimating that one out of every three children born in America will have diabetes during his or her lifetime. The article suggests more time walking and more time spent using amenities such as parks and nature trails.
Nature is closer than you may think with the many city, county, and state parks, and there is no entry fee. Our parks offer many low-cost benefits for children and families, an important factor at this time of economic stress for families with tight budgets. Pittsburgh residents have scores of opportunities to visit one of the 165 parks, including Point State Park, Riverview, Schenley, Frick, and Highland Park, as well as many smaller local parks. There are nine county parks in Allegheny County covering 12,000 acres and over 60 trails. The recent acquisition of 644-acre Hays Woods provides additional opportunities to explore nature nearby.
Some of Pennsylvania’s favorite state parks are an easy drive, including Ohiopyle, Moraine, and McConnell’s Mills.
People care about our parks and open space. I was heartened when during the most recent election, voters recognized the need to restore Pittsburgh’s parks. In a bold move, they voted ‘yes’ to increase their property taxes to restore Pittsburgh parks. A majority of homeowners agreed to pay an extra $50 on each $100,000 of assessed property value. Proper maintenance and restoration of the city’s parks will encourage more use, and that will be a good thing for our children.
Children who fish, camp and spend time in the wild before age 11 are much more likely to grow up to be environmentally-minded and committed as adults, according to Cornell researchers. Their study indicates that “participating in wild nature activities before age 11 is a particularly potent pathway toward shaping both environmental attitudes and behaviors in adulthood.” Out of the window of my home office, I can see the Pine Creek valley where nearly a hundred years ago, Rachael Carson and her mother often roamed looking for spring wildflowers. I can’t help but believe that those hours a field had a profound influence on our most famous environmentalist.