Growing Up Unplugged

Reflections on growing up connected to nature

During the late 1960s and early 1970s I had the great fortune of growing up in the Santa Monica Mountains that surround the western side of Los Angeles. My backyard didn’t have a fence line, but rather opened up on to the terrain of the mountains. I spent so much time outdoors that I have very few memories of recreating and playing indoors.

In a typical week my friends and I climbed trees, swam in the Pacific Ocean, hiked, ran and jumped as we raced from the top of a mountain peak, dug trenches and tunnels, built forts, and road our bicycles. We engaged in imaginary play, taking on the roles of heroes and villains, as we explored our natural surroundings.

As we spent time playing outdoors, we shared our physical space with animals that were indigenous to the Santa Monica Mountain: birds, rabbits, squirrels, snakes, insects, deer, and the occasional sighting of a coyote.

What is extraordinary about this period of time is that we were given the opportunity to negotiate our relationship to nature and to each other without constant adult supervision. In fact, I can hardly remember a time when an adult intervened in our explorations and play. Instead, we were allowed to figure out our relationship to nature and to each other and, in so doing, we developed a wide variety of abilities and skills.

What were the benefits and lessons of growing up connected to nature? We developed coordination and confidence in our bodies. Given the amount of aerobic exercise we engaged in, we developed stamina and strength. We were fit and lean and able to handle bumps, bruises, and cuts.

As would follow, we developed safety skills. We knew how far to hike, how fast to run, and where we could ride our bikes. We also developed our conflict resolution skills, our imagination, and our ability to innovate and improvise. And, above all, we all developed a respect for and recognition of the importance of nature.

Over the past quarter-century I have worked with children, teens, and families as an educator and a mental health professional. Sadly, during this period I have seen a steady decline in outdoor physical activity and an increasing disconnection from nature — especially over the past decade.

There are many reasons for this unfortunate change, including the expansion of suburbs into green spaces, parks that are configured to exclude nature, schools that do not take advantage of nearby natural resources, fear on the part of parents that play in nature will result in injury and, most of all, the expansion of home based recreational technology: multiple televisions hooked up to cable networks with hundreds of channels, handheld devices like the Nintendo DS, laptop computers, and most recently, smart phones and tablets.

According to research conducted by the Kaiser Family Foundation, 8 to 18-year-olds are spending 7.5 hours per day connected to some form of technology. When switch tasking is included, which simply means jumping from one form of technology to another, the actual number spent in front of a screen increases to 10.5 hours per day.

According to the Mayo Clinic, the consequences of excessive screen time are pervasive and serious. The American Academy of Pediatrics recommends limiting the use of TV, movies, video and computer games to no more than one or two hours per day. When children spend three or four times this amount connected to screen, the Mayo Clinic reports that they are more likely to experience physical and mental health problems. Excessive screen time has been linked to childhood obesity, irregular sleep, impaired academic performance, and a wide variety of behavioral problems.

The Mayo Clinic reports that elementary students who spend more than 2 hours per day in front of screens are likely to have emotional, social, and attention problems. Exposure to video games increases the risk of attention problems and children who watch excessive amounts of TV are more likely to bully children than children who do not. The Mayo Clinic also reports that consistent exposure to media violence can desensitize children to violence. As a result, some children accept violent behavior as a normal part of resolving conflicts. Finally, excessive screen time leaves little time for active, outdoor, creative play.

The research provided by the Mayo Clinic is supported by the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) and the National Institutes of Mental Health (NIMH). For example, according to the CDC, approximately 17% (or 12.5 million) of children and adolescents aged 2-19 are obese and obesity rates among children and teens have nearly tripled since 1980.

According to the NIMH attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) now affects 9% of American children and current studies show that the number of children being diagnosed with ADHD is increasing each year. Studies measuring the prevalence of autism spectrum disorder show a dramatic increase each year. Research by the CDC has established that 1 in 55 children now meet criteria for autism spectrum disorder.

What can parents do to reverse this disconnection from nature and prevent the serious developmental and psychiatric consequences that are linked to excessive screen time? First, parents need to set a positive example for their children. Parents need to lead an active lifestyle and make family physical activity a priority. This includes taking walks together after dinner, doing yard work together, and making use of public parks and outdoor recreation areas — including camping.

Parents need to encourage aerobic and muscle building activities every day by connecting children to the outdoors.  Rather than view vigorous outdoor activities as a source of danger, parents need to remember that children are resilient and strong and therefore should be encouraged to hike, bike, dig, climb trees, and swim. Unfortunately, only 6% of children ages 9 to 13 play outside on their own. Studies show a dramatic decline over the past decade in outdoor activities like swimming and fishing and a 31% decrease in bike riding since 1995.

Parents should also encourage their children to be active with their peers. Parents need to make sure that children play outside instead of watching television or playing video games inside. Parents need to take the time to connect their children and their friends to activities that occur in nature, such as organizing a beach day or mountain bike riding.

Parents need to partner with schools by encouraging the implementation of comprehensive physical activity programs and by helping organize special events that connect children to their natural surroundings. Parents need to educate schools that there are cognitive benefits to physical activity. Studies show that schools that use outdoor classrooms produce gains in test scores in social studies, science, language arts, and math. One study by the California Department of Education established that students in outdoor science programs improve science testing scores by 27%.

Parents can also join the Sierra Club, America’s largest grassroots environmental organization. The Sierra Club’s mission is to “enjoy, explore, and protect the planet.” Sierra Club programs seek to expand the conservation movement,organize grassroots and administrative support for the value of outdoor experiences, and build alliances and partnerships that protect our natural resources.

As for the immediate future, parents can participate with their children in the Great Outdoors America Week. Great Outdoors America Week (GO Week) is considered the preeminent event celebrating our relationship to the great outdoors and advocating for its future. As one of the largest annual conservation and outdoor focused events, GO Week serves the purpose of increasing awareness of important issues that affect the outdoors by bringing together a wide array of organizations and activists to meet with lawmakers and administrators to advocate for our outdoor way-of-life.

It is important to underscore that the foundation for all of the above is parents setting clear and firm limits about screen time use. As noted above, the American Academy of Pediatrics recommends a maximum of two hours of media time per day: television, computer, movies and DVDs, and video games. Without firm and consistent limits, children will opt to stay disconnected from nature and remain connected to the ever-expanding world of recreational technology.


< Back to view all blogs