Take a Hike, Kid

Bears, sharks, and strangers -- oh my! How kids are taught to fear the outdoors

| July 20, 2006

Kids say the darnedest things. 'I like to play indoors better 'cause that's where all the electrical outlets are,' one fifth-grader told Richard Louv, author of Last Child in the Woods: Saving Our Children From Nature-Deficit Disorder. Raise the age bracket and you might hear, as did one high school teacher querying his students on the environment: 'If you go out [in nature], there has to be a parent because you can't protect yourself' or 'The environment will die.' Writing for Sierra, Louv cites these comments as evidence that now more than ever, children are being raised indoors, largely because the outside world is just too scary.

With the constant message that the end of the natural world is coming in their lifetimes, many children have adopted an apocalyptic view of environmental issues, or 'ecophobia.' Says Karen Hurley, writing for Grist: '[T]he dominant, dystopic vision of the future is seen as more 'realistic' simply because it is talked about more, visualized more, and analyzed more.' This flood of overwhelming information shuts kids off to the issues instead of engaging kids to care about them.

It's not just the environmental doomsday that has kids frightened. Parents and caregivers are increasingly concerned about their children's safety. Even though abduction rates are falling, many parents are convinced that their children are in danger of being kidnapped. Nature's creatures are ending up on most wanted lists, too. Dave Anderson, writing for the New Hampshire newspaper Concord Monitor, suggests that media coverage sensationalizes wild animal attacks to the point that these rare occurrences seem like everyday hazards. 'Dire warnings increasingly frighten parents and children to the point of keeping kids indoors, alienated from what is perceived as a wild, dangerous insect- and germ-infested 'great outdoors,'' says Anderson. No longer is it acceptable to send the kids out and expect them home at dinnertime, sun-tinged and covered in dirt, scrapes, and bruises. Parents' reactions to animals, insects, and nature, whether they 'scream, wince, or smile,' writes Anderson, can set the stage for children's perceptions of the natural world.

'Yes, there are hazards outside the home,' notes Louv. 'But, in most cases, they pale in comparison to those of raising young people under what amounts to protective house arrest.' Broken bones are less likely indoors, but repetitive stress-injuries (think videogames) are increasingly common. Childhood obesity is more rampant that ever. Conversely, fewer symptoms of Attention Deficit Disorder are found among children who engage with nature. Studies also suggest that kids are more creative and cooperative when they play in a natural setting, as opposed to an asphalt playground.

Not content to let fear win, parents and teachers are stepping up to get kids outdoors again. Nature-based preschools and public high schools have started opening within the last year. Parents also are trying to be role models for the kids. Says Hurley, kids just need to know 'that there [are] adults making positive change toward a flourishing earth.' The results will pay off as children feel more confident in the natural environment. 'Experience lets children safely explore a world they will soon inherit,' writes Anderson.

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