Getting back to nature, one child at a time
May 24, 2012
It used to be that all it took to get youngsters engaged in outdoor recreation was opening the door. Kids were eager to stay outside until dark, playing marathon games of hide-and-seek or kick the can; hunkering down with pals at the local fishing hole; or stretching their imaginations in the woods and fields behind their homes.
Today? After years of witnessing a trend that saw increasingly more kids interested in indoor "activities" like video games, television and online surfing, the Michigan No Child Left Inside Coalition is taking the battle to reconnect kids with the natural world to Michigan's state capital. It's just one step in the important journey to help children and their families better grasp the good things that come with an immersion in "all things outdoors." Michigan's No Child Left Inside movement aims to reconnect kids to the natural world around them, even through the simple joy of playing. (Image on the right.)
On Tuesday, June 19, from 10 a.m. to 3 p.m., coalition members and representatives of the Michigan Recreation and Park Association will be in Lansing on the Capitol lawn, for a day of outdoor-minded advocacy and activities - including canoe and kayak simulations; disc golf; nature interpretation; games; areas to practice casting a fishing line, and more.
The folks at the Michigan No Child Left Inside Coalition see the Capitol event as an easy yet powerful way to showcase the facts about getting more kids outdoors, more often.
"The benefits of outdoor recreation have been heavily documented," said Raymond Rustem, the Michigan Department of Natural Resources' lead coordinator for the state's No Child Left Inside effort.
"Research shows that children who regularly get opportunities to play freely in the outdoors demonstrate greater levels of creativity, cooperation, conflict resolution and leadership," Rustem said. "Kids who get outdoors are less likely to be obese and generally exhibit fewer symptoms of attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder."
Often, Rustem said, even just having a view of green spaces decreases stress and improves test scores among students.
With all of that good information, it might seem that parents, educators, administrators and others would have an easier time of getting kids outdoors, right?
Not so. The DNR, recreation agencies and others have been fighting the good fight against a steady and growing stream of electronic and other entertainment sources that are competing mightily for young people's attention. The results, according to Rustem, have been "startling."
A 2007 study conducted by the University of Illinois found that outdoor-based recreation had declined 18 percent to 25 percent since the early '80s. More striking was the suggestion from another study that children spend an average of six hours a day with electronic devices (televisions, computers, handheld games, etc.), yet only 30 minutes per week in unstructured play outdoors.
Rustem said research points out that, within one generation, the percentage of people who indicated that the outdoors was the most influential environment of their childhood dropped from 96 percent to 46 percent.
"If this trend continues, it will have major implications - nationally and here at home - for outdoor recreation and conservation in the future," Rustem said.
Books like "Last Child in the Woods" and "Nature Principle" by Richard Louv put into words what many people knew or suspected: Kids just aren't interacting with the outdoors the way that previous generations did. If that sad reality is ever to be reversed, someone is going to have to help make it happen.
One might ask if there's any good news on the horizon. The answer, fortunately, is yes.
Consider the following developments:
- Aided by a Kellogg Foundation community action grant, Kalamazoo Nature Center created the "Outside in Our Schoolyard" program. In just two years, it has grown to include four schools and 150 students, all sharing information and ideas on getting kids outdoors, and the creation of a butterfly garden.
- Many outdoors clubs and groups are using social media to research, promote and plan their events and trips - everything from biking and hiking to boating and camping.
- Several Michigan state parks offer the First-Time Camper program, which - for just $20 - gives novice campers the use of a tent and other equipment, plus guidance from a park employee during two nights of camping. This program includes everything from instruction on how to build a campfire to the supplies for making s'mores.
- In partnership with local youth organizations in urban areas like Detroit, Flint and Muskegon, the DNR's Stepping Stones program helps youngsters explore the outdoors through activities (like map-reading, camping, fishing and archery) at state parks. Last year, 4,000+ urban children got familiar with the outdoor world through this program.
As parks and recreation agencies make it easier for people of all ages to explore and strengthen their outdoor skills, the outdoor tradition will be strengthened, too.
The movement to help young people forge a connection with outdoor recreation and the natural world has been building for years, and it's picking up steam. The Michigan DNR continues to be right in the thick of it.
"The Department of Natural Resources has a long history of promoting outdoor recreation," said Maia Stephens, recreation programmer for the DNR's Parks and Recreation Division. "For more than 90 years, Michigan state parks have provided plenty of opportunities for people to gather with family and friends to enjoy many recreational pursuits."
With more than 100 state parks and recreation areas dotting the map, Stephens said Michigan has something for everyone. She cited the DNR's 10 interpretive centers - eight of them with fully developed visitors' centers - to help spread the word about the fun and fitness of just getting outdoors.
Taking that thought even further, the DNR created Recreation 101, a hands-on program at state parks, designed to help people learn the basics about a variety of recreation skills (from geocaching and biking to windsurfing and outdoor cooking).
Stephens said that more than 400 such learning opportunities are available this summer, and each is a chance to introduce outdoor traditions to more kids, through parents, aunts and uncles and family friends.
This year, the DNR is getting a boost from the Michigan Recreation and Park Association, which is helping to promote Recreation 101 through its membership.
"The Michigan Recreation and Park Association is thrilled to partner with the DNR to promote outdoor recreation opportunities in Michigan," said MRPA Chief Operating Officer Ann Conklin. "It's crucial that all levels of parks and recreation providers, including municipal, county, regional and state departments, work together to expose residents to the wonderful natural resources and recreation opportunities available throughout our state."
Milliken State Park on the Detroit River offers another inviting "get outdoors" weekend during Detroit River Days (June 22-24), with plenty of activities that will keep kids busy and, hopefully, inspire them to reach for a fishing pole instead of the remote control.
Get the latest information on the No Child Left Inside movement at www.mncli.org. Learn more about Michigan's beautiful state parks and the popular Recreation 101 events at www.michigan.gov/stateparks.