The Nature Gap

Don’t make it any wider this Christmas. Give children toys, not devices–things that encourage engagement with other children, their muscles, and nature. Is there a problem?

Between 1997 and 2003, the proportion of children ages 9 to 12 who spent time hiking, walking, fishing, playing on the beach or gardening declined 50 percent, according to a University of Maryland study. Children between the ages of 8 and 18 spend an average of 6 1/2 hours a day with electronic media, according to the Kaiser Family Foundation.

Kids are still curious by nature. But it is no longer nature that draws their curiosity. They learn about their place in the world beyond the screen of their monitor, not beyond the door to the world they will inherit. This even applies to kids in California and Colorado where there are more plenty of natural areas for children to visit and explore:

Yosemite may be nice and all, but Tommy Nguyen of San Francisco would much prefer spending his day in front of a new video game or strolling around the mall with his buddies.

What, after all, is a 15-year-old supposed to do in what John Muir called “the grandest of all special temples of nature” without cell phone service?

“I’d rather be at the mall because you can enjoy yourself walking around looking at stuff as opposed to the woods,” Nguyen said from the comfort of the Westfield San Francisco Centre mall.

In Yosemite and other parks, he said, furrowing his brow to emphasize the absurdly lopsided comparison, “the only thing you look at is the trees, grass and sky.”

Kids don’t think of it as a park. They just think of it as a big open space where there is nothing to do.” …The notion of going on a hike, camping, fishing or backpacking is foreign to a growing number of young people in cities and suburbs around the nation, according to several polls and studies.”

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Fred First holds masters degrees in Vertebrate Zoology and physical therapy, and has been a biology teacher and physical therapist by profession. He moved to southwest Virginia in 1975 and to Floyd County in 1997. He maintains a daily photo-blog, broadcasts essays on the Roanoke NPR station, and contributes regular columns for the Floyd Press and Roanoke's Star Sentinel. His two non-fiction books, Slow Road Home and his recent What We Hold in Our Hands, celebrate the riches that we possess in our families and communities, our natural bounty, social capital and Appalachian cultures old and new. He has served on the Jacksonville Center Board of Directors and is newly active in the Sustain Floyd organization. He lives in northeastern Floyd County on the headwaters of the Roanoke River.

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  1. There’s double trouble here: first, the kids lose the benefits of knowing nature; and second, these same kids will grow up not caring about nature.

  2. Thank you for this great article. The grandkids are getting imagination exercisers and books for Christmas. I need a couple more things and your article reminded me of the clearance rack purchases I made in the garden dept. this fall. I will put together gardening baskets for them as well.
    Thanks again.

  3. How sad.

    There is nothing that can compare with wide open spaces, blue skies, tall trees in a forest, mountains that lift your spirits, and beautiful coastal views.


  4. Agree that this is a major problem that will have repercussions in the physical, behavioral, and political areas of our lives.

    I took my boys, not yet 4, camping this fall. They loved it. While in Floyd over Thanksgiving, we hiked and picnicked around the Rocky Knob area. The boys loved it, though they “didn’t want to see a bear”.

    But I think the responsibility falls on the parents to be nature mentors, rather than blame technology alone. Most urban parents don’t have these “skills”, and they are just “too busy”.

    I often wrestle with whether it is better to live in an urban area and maximize my income or to move to a place like Floyd and let my children experience a more natural area at the cost of less earnings opportunities.

  5. Before my CA city grandsons came to visit, my son asked me if I could kill all the spiders first, as #1 son was frightened by them. “Uh, no, fraid not, but he’ll be fine.” We live on 12 acres of wooded land on the river…boys came & learned to love running free in the woods…grampie gave them walkie-talkies (remember those?) and they were thrilled, ducking behind trees, running with the choc Labs.
    Their Dad has now moved the family to Montana, near a big river. He understands the need now to have them experience the outdoors.

    My stepson is running into the same city-scape horrors of bumper-to-bumper traffic and children cooped up indoors. He called tonight to discuss other job options and locations such as ours.

    We can only hope~