One expert says fewer children are playing outdoors, and that's a problem.
By ANNA TONG
SAN JOSE, Calif. -- Nathan Brooks-Bushaw, 7, was grinning after he finished a two-week baseball camp at San Jose State University -- he was down to the last important item on his summer to-do list.
"Play video games!" he shouted gleefully.
Ask most kids if they have played an Xbox, created a MySpace account or watched the movie "High School Musical."
Now ask them to describe poison oak, if they've seen a wild salamander or which direction lichen grows on trees. Good luck getting answers.
One childhood advocacy expert calls it "nature-deficit disorder" and argues that American children have lost their connection to the natural world. The result, says author Richard Louv, is an epidemic of obesity, learning disabilities and depression that could be remedied if kids just got outside more.
One advocate's view
Louv, who explores the phenomenon in the book "Last Child in the Woods: Saving our Children From Nature-Deficit Disorder," says kids should spend the summer climbing trees, building forts and making important connections with nature. Instead, they're often in an air-conditioned house watching TV. If they do go outside, it's to play organized sports.
"That has huge implications for their health and well-being," he said.
Exposing kids to nature can, among other things, reduce childhood obesity and attention deficit disorder, and nurture creativity and confidence, he said. Traditionally, children have spent large chunks of time tromping through the woods and exploring creeks, but in the last few decades, that time has diminished dramatically, according to Louv.
There are several reasons for the decrease in contact with the natural world, he said. First, in many areas of the nation, few homes have real nature in their back yards. Manicured lawns don't count.
"Physically, nature is not as available," he said. "The bulldozers took out the woods."
But parents don't need to take their children to Yosemite for them to discover natural universes. Even the most insignificant place can seem wondrous to a child, said Louv.
For example, at the San Jose Safari day camp, education coordinator Kary Houle takes campers to the creek behind Guadalupe River Park, located in the heart of San Jose's urban jungle. "You're, like, 20 feet from suburbia but it's so different," said 9-year-old Meiko Flynn-Do, while staring at a fish swimming in the creek.
Houle said campers "totally calm down" when she takes them to explore the creek.
Setting good examples
Parents also need to set good examples, even if that means tearing themselves away from the computer.
"I think it has something to do with the interest of the parents," said Kathy Murren, who has two school-age children. "You see a lot of parents having to have the newest gadget here. If the parents weren't as interested in technology, then their kids wouldn't be."
In his book, Louv cites research, including a 2003 Cornell University study that found children whose rooms had a view of nature suffered less from stress.
Chris Sanchez, a 21-year-old, said that he had realized in high school that another world existed beyond his computer games.
"I definitely wish I could have gone outside more," he said, while shopping for a Sudoku video game. "I played computer games five or six hours a day. I didn't have any social skills, and I didn't get exercise from going outside, so I got overweight."
Now, a junior at the University of California-San Diego, he says he's found "real social connections" and only plays computer games every once in a while.
Solution: summer camp?
Andrew Townsend, director of Kennolyn Camp in the Santa Cruz mountains, sees summer camp as a solution because it's the only time when kids can really immerse themselves in nature.
"For a lot of kids, summertime will be their only nature experience," he said. At Kennolyn, cell phones and modern electronic devices are prohibited. Every week, resident campers spend 24 hours in the woods, living at a rustic campsite, learning about things such as the difference between oak and redwood trees. Kennolyn only shows one movie per week, but Townsend said campers never complain about being restless.
"We're so busy and we do so many things all day long that campers can easily do without any technology," he said.
But even during summer, there's always the push to have kids engage in activities that have tangible rewards.
Murren sent her 13-year-old son to iD tech camp last week at Stanford University, where he learned to customize and modify "Warcraft III: The Frozen Throne," a popular computer game. Campers spend the whole day in class, except for an hour after lunch spent on outside activities.
"I wanted to use his interest in computer games as a steppingstone," Murren said. "That's what jobs are today."