By Larry Schweiger
Pittsburgh Current Columnist
The coronavirus crisis facing this country may be the most profound challenge we have faced since World War II. The pandemic and the national failure to invest in our governmental agencies are having catastrophic consequences. We must learn to discern science from opinions and accept that expertise matters. Our failure to be better prepared is causing immense pain and suffering. Before it is over, we may need to reconsider who we are as Americans and how we must live in an overcrowded, interconnected, and fragile world. Perhaps this may also be a time to elevate our consciousness of the interdependency we have with nature and our community.
In the absence of sound leadership from Trump to guide us, it is becoming the responsibility of governors and mayors to make the hard but responsible decisions. As theatres and other market-based social events close, we must find ways to isolate and take steps to protect our family. Health authorities have pleaded continually with every American to adopt “social distancing” measures like working from home and maintaining a distance of six feet from each other. The failure of some to stop socializing and other self-seeking behaviors prolongs the crisis. It makes the pandemic so much more dangerous than it otherwise would be.
Self-isolation is the order of the day, and depending on how society adapts, it could last for several months. For every parent, adjusting to the unexpected time with your children, consider getting them outdoors and connected to nature. If there can be any unseen benefit of the very dark #coronavirus clouds, it is that nature provides intrinsic social distancing. In these tight economic times, nature is available for free. We should be out in the woods with our children.
You may be opening a whole new world for them to explore, use their imaginations, and find deep and lasting connections with wild things. Rachel Carson wrote about the importance of curiosity and unstructured play in nature. “A child’s world is fresh and new and beautiful, full of wonder and excitement. It is our misfortune that for most of us that clear-eyed vision, that true instinct for what is beautiful and awe-inspiring, is dimmed and even lost before we reach adulthood.”
Today, I hiked along Pine Creek, listening to the spring peepers, tree frogs, and a distant piliated woodpecker drumming on a hollow snag. Rachel Carson and her mother once walked along the same stream in her youth. Springtime outings undoubtedly seeded Rachel’s sense of wonder for nature. She wrote in her last unfinished manuscript called The Sense of Wonder, “If a child is to keep alive his inborn sense of wonder…he needs the companionship of at least one adult who can share it, rediscovering with him the joy, excitement, and mystery of the world we live in.” She may have been reflecting on her time with her mother when she wrote, “I sincerely believe for the child, and for the parent seeking to guide, it is not half so important to know as to feel.” Rachel’s mother was not very knowledgeable but she loved nature all the same and inspired that love in Rachel. For parents who may not know much about nature, it is ok to allow your children to roam unfettered. You may not be able to teach your children much about the trees or flowers but let them experience free-ranging in the woods and along the creeks.
Author Richard Louv has linked the lack of nature in the lives of today’s wired generation—he calls it nature-deficit—and connects it to some of the most disturbing childhood trends, such as the rises in obesity, attention disorders, and depression. Louv wrote “Last Child in the Woods to bring together a growing body of research indicating that direct exposure to nature is essential for healthy childhood development of the physical and emotional health. As adults, we, too, need to be out of doors to avoid cabin fever in this time of isolation.
There are many signs that something significant is happening to the essential connection between Americans and the outdoors. The signs are everywhere. What is happening to our relationship with nature, and where has the outdoor time gone? The Association for Childhood Education International reported that that U.S. children’s outdoor time is down by 50% over previous generations. A study published in Early Childhood in 2004 found that 85% of mothers reported that their children play outdoors less than they did as children. In 2004, the Kaiser Family Foundation estimated that the average child spent over 6 hours daily watching TV, playing video games or on a computer, and I am sure those numbers are even worse today.
A survey of teachers in a paper entitled “From muddy hands and dirty faces… to higher grades and happy places” Cath Prisk and Dr. Harry Cusworth explore outdoor learning and play at schools around the world. The survey explored the benefits of outdoor learning found:
- The majority of teachers said that children gain a better understanding of the environment through outdoor play (92% of Australian and 88% of Canadian teachers identified this as an outcome, compared to 83% in the UK and 82% in the US).
- Teachers across the world believe playing outdoors develops critical skills for life, including social skills, imagination, and creativity, improved fine motor skills, and the ability to focus on a task.
- Teachers believe playing and learning outdoors helps children in their learning, through improved behavior and by enabling them to retain information.
- Playing outdoors and outdoor education makes children happier.
I lived in the outdoors as a child, and I suspect many others spent a great deal of your childhood free time outdoors too. My brothers and roamed for hours across the hills of northern Allegheny County, climbing trees, building forts, and dams in the creek. Despite the troubling trends, overwhelmingly, mothers in surveys recognized the significant benefits of children spending more time outdoors for health and motor skill development reasons. Most agreed that it improved childhood social skills and believed outdoor play as a way to enhance a child’s sense of self-worth.
Years ago, kids burned plenty of calories playing outdoors. 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 ingredient. Researchers in such places as Chicago and Boston studied how the nationwide childhood obesity epidemic may cause shorter life-spans for the next generation. While we have enjoyed increases in the expected lifespan for several decades, the new lack of childhood activity and its extra pounds can lead to adult-onset diabetes. They can shorten the average lifespan from three to five years.
Time in nature is therapeutic for us all. Lee Willard shared her recent experience, “On a sunny day, I decided to escape the boredom of being home by exploring Frick Park trails. Curious to discover what was down the path. When I was a little girl, I had a rough childhood, and the woods were my safe haven. Imagination sweeps sadness and fears away. I even found a waterfall and named it my secret place. My inner child is feeling the same wonder today. Escaping reality and letting nature restore while listening to the gentle wind blowing. I also hear the nearby creek trickling over rocks.
The birds are singing as the sun gently kisses my face, and I smile. Smiling isn’t as easy to do these days.”
Nature is open to all. Rue Mapp is the founding director of Outdoor Afro, a national non-profit organization with leadership networks around the country. Rue inspires minorities to connect with nature and encourages us all to take better care of our health by spending time in nature. She believes spending time in nature is an essential step to protecting communities and our planet. Rue also has a useful video encouraging the use of the natural world to explore science.
This is a timely reminder for all of us to connect with nature during times of stress. Perhaps in so doing we may discover how our lifestyles are out of step with the life-supporting natural world. Let’s all take this time to be out there.