Over the past decade, fitness levels among children, as well as the amount of time youths spend outdoors, have dropped significantly. In contrast, screen time (time behind a television, computer, etc.) has escalated, as have levels of diabetes among children. Increased use of passive entertainment has offset the time previously dedicated to free playtime in the outdoors, and now it is reported that a third of U.S. children and teens are overweight or obese—the highest number ever recorded.
Trends such as these have certainly gotten our attention at NOLS because they have potential ramifications on our enrollment, the number of advocates for our public land classrooms, and our ability to execute our mission. Yet, even more importantly, they have significant implications for the health and well-being of our society.
Studies show that decreasing time in the outdoors causes kids to miss out on the cognitive development, emotional health and creativity that can come from direct nature experiences. Research also shows that among young kids, outdoor time can lead to a significant reduction in symptoms of Attention Deficit Disorder. In addition, outdoor and environmental education programs have, for a long time, led to increased science scores in the classroom.
Today’s generation of parents are more averse to the hazards outside their home than ever before. However, while there are risks outside the home, they pale in comparison to the danger that comes from too much time cooped up indoors. Richard Louv, author of Last Child in the Woods: Saving our Children from Nature-Deficit Disorder, makes the case that less time outdoors for children is leading to increased obesity, more stress, greater likelihood of learning disorders and even greater depression.
At NOLS, we know well the lessons learned in the outdoors. Our students gain lifelong recreation skills, experience natural history, practice leadership and leave their courses in possibly the best shape they’ve ever been. In addition, they build unique and special friendships and memories that stay with them for a lifetime.
I urge all of you to do what you can to return young people to the outdoors: pass along a NOLS catalog to a potential student, help organize an outdoor club at a high school or middle school, plan an outdoor adventure for your family, help other organizations that are committed to time in the outdoors. By doing so, you can help build a stronger and happier future generation.
Now is also the time to work with your local schools to focus more of their resources on reconnecting kids to nature and outdoor activities. After all, schools that use outdoor classrooms do better academically across the board, it doesn’t matter whether it is science or whether it is on other standardized tests.
Personally, time in the outdoors has led to my closest relationships and friendships. This summer was no exception as I went on a backpacking trip in the Wind River Range with my two oldest children and a week-long camping trip with the whole family. Experiencing the remote corners of the Winds through my children’s eyes was a wonderful experience. My daughter Mara and I were also able to climb the Grand Teton together on the Upper Exum Ridge. Now, when we drive by the Grand, she looks at the mountain differently; she looks at it intimately. There is little doubt that the memories and lessons of those trips will be with my children for a lifetime.