By Andy Zou
On Feb. 18, Union hosted president and co-founder of the Children and Nature Network Cheryl Charles to give the third seminar in the Environmental Science, Policy and Engineering Winter Seminar Series entitled “The Ecology of Hope: Reconnecting Children with Nature”.
Charles has spoken internationally about the importance of nature to children.
The focus of the talk was to raise awareness on how the dynamics of childhood play have changed in the past several decades and how present generations have grown increasingly disconnected from nature.
Although Charles portrays this as a worrying trend, she also is hopeful that this trend could be reversed due to the efforts of a growing worldwide effort to reconnect children, families and local communities with nature.
Charles started the talk by asking how many people in the audience had parents that told them to go play outside and not come back until dusk.
Less than half of the audience raised their hands; even fewer amongst the students present.
Charles attributed this to the growing watchfulness of society, with many parents sharing reservations about letting children roam free and far.
Charles lamented that this was a dramatic shift from when she grew up, when children could roam around the neighborhood freely and discover the mysteries and wonders of the natural environment.
Charles emphasized throughout her talk that unstructured play in nature is one of the most important educational assets parents can give their children.
Unstructured play in natural environments goes a long way to develop children’s executive functioning, such as creativity and intelligence.
A 30-year veteran elementary school teacher who attended the talk echoed Charles’ thoughts when he remarked that students he taught who had no TV sets at home were generally smarter.
Although Charles understood parents’ mindset in an increasingly more populous and complex society, as well as some parents’ desire to hover over and exert control over children’s activities, she cited statistics that their fears are disproportionate to the actual risk if they were regulating children’s playtime spent outdoors on grounds of safety.
She passionately highlighted that to succumb to unwarranted fears would likely mean the demise of unstructured play.
Charles explained that several other factors have led to the decline of unstructured play over the last 30 years, including the rise of media.
According to a study done by the Kaiser Family Foundation, children eight to 18 years of age today are exposed to five more hours of media content per week than the children of five years ago. The use of all forms of online and mobile media also have increased.
Charles also referenced increased school regulations. The increased emphasis on schooling has led to more rigorous time schedules, and some schools have decided to cut recess and other forms of exercise.
Due to changing transportation habits, some schools have also discouraged the use of bikes. Sedentary habits among children have increased, which is not only exemplified in how schools are restricting children’s time spent outdoors, but also in the fact that less than one in five schoolchildren today bike to school.
The increased presence of media and the more than seven hours of sedentary time spent indoors take away from time where children could otherwise be free to discover and play outside on their own.
Charles explained that as a result, today’s children are suffering from obesity, depression and anxiety problems that could have been mediated had they been more immersed in the natural world.
According to a study conducted by the Natural Resources Institute Finland, even 20 minutes spent in the wild can increase feelings of vitality and well-being.
Charles explained that as unsupervised play has slowly gone out of fashion due to fears of safety, presence of media, overscheduled parents and school regulations, many fail to realize that unstructured play is distinctly different from guided play.
There is still optimism that this trend can be reversed and children can be reconnected to the natural environment.
Charles cited a program to expand greenery within the realms of public schools as an example.
Across the country and around the world, programs to introduce nature and teach essentials of the wild to young children are taking shape.
Recently, President Barack Obama announced the “Every Kid in a Park” initiative to give all fourth-graders free access to national parks and other public lands for one year.
World experts are noting the substantial effort of NGOs, such as the Children and Nature Network, to raise awareness and popularize initiatives that seek to address the problem of getting children in nature.
Charles was recently inspired at the 2014 World Parks Congress held in Sydney, Australia.
The conference recognized the need to rebalance human society with nature, and formulated visions and promises from leaders around the world to transform how human societies engage with and value the cultural, spiritual and societal significance of protected areas around the world.
A student who attended the talk, Mead Binhammer ’17, agreed with Charles’ assessment of the problem.
Binhammer said, “It is imperative that the youth of this country begin to make lasting changes in how we treat the environment.”
Binhammer also remarked that “the speech was directed toward younger generations to inspire interest and promote change in environmental issues.”
Charles ended the talk with a rousing call to the magnitude of the problem, by asking the question — who would care about the natural treasures of the earth if nobody gets outside?