Today, International Children’s Day, my particular goal is to enable children to reconnect with their environment …
The World Conference for the Well-being of Children in Geneva, Switzerland, proclaimed June 1 to be International Children’s Day in 1925. It is usually marked with speeches on children’s rights and wellbeing, and other events involving or dedicated to children.
A similar event, Universal Children’s Day, falls on 20 November. It was established by the United Nations in 1954 and aims to promote the welfare of children around the world.
Groups that re-connect children with the outdoors and nature:
(click on the purple to visit websites)
NAEE (UK) – the National Association for Environmental Education
After the Olympics, come the Paralympics … People with disabilities – especially children – fighting for their rights, is a hugely personal area for me – I used to be a ‘disability coordinator’. Before I explain why interest, first – this from William G. Stothers on ‘why special needs children need Nature’!
When I was 8 years old, my family moved from a big city to a tiny town (pop. 600). We lived in a rented house, complete with an outhouse. I loved it.
There were farms nearby, and I got up-close to a different world, helping to herd and milk cows, “assisting” in the fields, and “riding” farm horses.
There was a small creek down the hill from our house. My buddies and I fished from the bridge over the creek. I wandered along the mostly ankle-deep creek, looking for fish or turtles. About a half-mile from home, a little railway bridge went over the creek; at times, a couple of us would try to catch fish there, and while we did, we would build a little fire to heat up a can of pork and beans.
Riding my bike around country roads, exploring the woods, climbing trees, getting caught in the rain, jumping into puddles and off a bridge and swimming in a deep pool said to be filled with old tires and other discarded trash, consumed summers.
I loved it all. There is something about getting dirty, touching and feeling the real natural world that thrills and energizes me at some level.
Two years later, when I was 10, polio came calling and for the next three years I worked (“worked” is the right word isn’t it? for polio people for sure) my way through rehab institutions away from home.
Then I returned to our newly built house in town. No more outhouse – thank heaven, since that old one was not accessible!
And there were many other “no mores” No more wandering along the little creek, no more fishing from the bridge, no more exploring the woods, no more riding my bike.
Now when I went out, someone pushed me in my wheelchair. My feet stayed put, about six inches off the grass, the sidewalk, the gravel roads.
The natural world seemed to slip away, vibrancy fading out of touch. After a while I didn’t notice, caught up with just getting used to doing as much as I could on wheels.
Fast forward several years, and I was back in a big city, working at a newspaper and living on my own (praise be to power chairs!) in a downtown high-rise apartment building. It was there in that ninth-floor apartment that I began to feel a certain anxiety.
I finally realized that I was going back and forth to work and leading a busy life, but that I was going for long periods of time without seeing anything green and growing. No grass. No trees.
I tried growing corn on my balcony. No corn either.
After three years, I was able to buy a house, with a backyard and elm trees. It was wonderful.
I took up photography and found myself spending lots of time in local parks, getting close to and making pictures of flowers, plants and outdoor life. That anxious feeling ebbed.
Nature, like the rest of society, is becoming more accessible to people with disabilities of all ages. Due to the efforts of people with disabilities, national, state and local parks are providing accessible trails and features that make it possible to get closer to flowers, trees and even animals – without paving paradise. And people with disabilities are more active than ever in outdoor sports, recreation and games. Or just hanging out in neighborhood yards and little parks.
The truth is that people with disabilities, especially kids, still tend to be more isolated, and participate less in social and community activities with their peers. More home alone, even, than playing outside or exploring their world by themselves.
Organizations such as Easter Seals (and many local and regional groups) offer more organized activities, from summer camp and sports. But I fear too few kids get much unregulated, unorganized time encountering the natural world.
Kids with disabilities love to touch the wonders of the earth, getting dirty in the grass, trying to grab a lizard or a worm or a bug. I still do too.
As time has passed, I have kept up my picture making and it helps me connect with the real world around me.
My feet continue to skim six inches above the grass. Still, I can stick my nose closer to the roses in my front yard and take in the perfume. I can rub my hands over the bark on the big tree in my back yard. And even though the techs tell me not to, I can’t stop powering through puddles. Splashing and grinning.
Life is good.
About The Author : Disabled by polio at age 10, William G. Stothers has been fighting barriers to access in education and in the workplace for 60 years. 1968, Stothers joined the staff of the Toronto Star, where in 1972 he orchestrated the writing and editing of one of the first examinations of independent living and disability rights issues in the mainstream press. He also worked at The San Diego Union and was editor of MAINSTREAM, a national magazine for people with disabilities. He serves on the board of directors of Post-Polio Health International.
I’m betting that if David Paddock writes a book, it will be titled “It Takes a Forest.” But I’m getting ahead of myself.
As is often the case with simple wisdom, and when propogated by controversial politicians in particular, the “village” maxim soon garnered more derision than approbation. But beyond politics, social scientists know, and most parents admit, that child-rearing is a mysterious combination of nature and nurture. Both influence a child’s development to varying degrees, with the interplay of genes and environment determining who we become. Clearly the village plays a role.
Today, however, with over half of the world’s population living in cities, more and more young people are missing out on a crucial dimension of childhood development. Not the village or the genes, but the forests: a combination of nature and nurture, call it self-nurturing in the natural environment.
The lack of forests, fields and streams for urban kids is one part of the problem, and the spread of seductive technologies is another. According to a recent survey in the United States by California-based nonprofit the Kaiser Family Foundation (which focuses on national healthcare issues and the U.S. role in global health policymaking), in a typical day “8- to 18-year-olds devote an average of 7 hours 38 minutes to using entertainment media (more than 53 hours a week). And because they spend so much of that time ‘media multitasking,’ they actually manage to pack a total of 10 hours 45 minutes’ worth of media content into those 7½ hours.” (For full survey results, visitwww.kff.org/entmedia/mh012010pkg.cfm.)
These findings should shock me, but as the parent of a teenager and a professor surrounded by young people and their techno-toys, I find myself in awe as much I am appalled. It no longer surprises me to see my son texting on a cellphone while talking on Skype with several friends across the globe who are all watching the same YouTube video.
Whether we like it or not, such technologies and their offspring are here to stay. The problem is that each hour a child spends absorbed in entertainment media is one hour not spent in nature.
Which brings me back to David Paddock. When we spoke recently, I didn’t mention the Kaiser survey, but I expect he would agree that techno-absorption bodes ill for kids, as well as for the society they will inhabit in decades to come.
Paddock is the founder and director of English Adventure (EA) in Japan, and he is dedicated to tackling two of my biggest educational concerns here. One is the lack of dynamic and engaging English education for young people and the other is the fact that so few youngsters get out into the natural environment.
Paddock and his colleagues run a variety of EA camps, including English Immersion programs intended for Japanese kids who have lived abroad and which are popular with those attending international schools, and English Challenge (EC) programs for children who’ve had little exposure to English.
Like various other similar outdoors programs for children — including ones my Nature page colleague C.W. Nicol organizes with his Afan Woodland Trust in Nagano Prefecture — these camps give children an opportunity for self-nurturing in a supportive environment set in natural surroundings. Unlike Nic’s projects for mainly disadvantaged Japanese children and young Tohoku survivors, though, these are conducted in English.
The great outdoors: Children taking part in activities at English Adventure camps in Japan — lighting a campfire (above); playing in rapids (below); taking a dip in a stream; and learning about flora and fauna on a guided nature walk (bottom). ENGLISH ADVENTURE / DAVID PADDOCK
“Modern kids don’t get enough time outdoors in contact with nature, and far less than previous generations, and this affects everything from intellectual and emotional development to obesity and physical fitness,” Paddock continues. “As a kid, I only went to one overnight camp, but I was out in the woods around our neighborhood in the daytime, catching fireflies at night, sledding and making snow forts in winter. We weren’t closely supervised, so we got to learn our own limits and invent our own play.
“I imagine that kids in some rural areas of Japan are still growing up that way, but certainly not the kids we host at EA camps. And if coming to camp is the only way they’re going to get some of those experiences, then it’s our privilege to help make that happen,” he adds.
Paddock, 42, attended Indiana University (Bloomington), where he majored in biology and became interested in the martial art of aikido. After graduation, he worked in a molecular biology lab for three years before coming to Japan in 1996 as a participant on the Japan Exchange and Teaching (JET) program. He has been here ever since.
Paddock works closely with two EA staff, Jeff Jensen and Toshi Yuta.
Jensen is the EA program manager and an “extraordinary outdoorsman,” according to Paddock. A Canadian who grew up in the Rockies, Jensen previously co-owned the first rafting company on the Tama River and annually celebrates New Year on top of Mount Fuji.
Yuta, the marketing and communication manager and camp manager, lived in the U.S. and New Zealand from age 14 and is fully bilingual. “He is very understanding of the challenges and benefits experienced by returnee kids, as well as the feelings and needs of kids who come into our English Challenge camps,” says Paddock.
During the summer season beginning July 23 — which comprises four camps of five days each in Chichibu, Saitama Prefecture — EA hires around 30 support staff representing a mix of nationalities and backgrounds, many of them bilingual, to ensure that the children get the linguistic and personal support they need.
Like the Afan Woodland Trust, Paddock and his colleagues are also working hard to help less advantaged children in Japan.
“Another thread is that we are providing camps for a growing number of children from orphanages,” he explains, including a special camp in Kurihara, Miyagi Prefecture, for Tohoku Prefecture orphans. “For these kids, all of the other camp benefits are true — along with what we believe to be great therapeutic potential to be found in nature.”
Paddock cares deeply about kids and nature, and he hopes that nurturing campers who love nature will encourage those children to conserve Japan’s environment when they get older. “We have to know something before we can love it, and we have to love it before we want to protect it,” he says.
EA camps cater primarily to elementary school students, as well as some junior high school students, and the staff are committed to providing a safe and supportive environment that challenges children to extend themselves socially, emotionally, intellectually and physically.
“We want them to grow into lovers of camping and outdoor recreation, and we want them to develop into people who know and love the natural world,” notes Paddock.
“Our job at EA is first of all to help kids really know nature and the outdoors. Then, and only then, can they begin to love it. Once they’ve begun to experience the beauty, the fun and the mysteries for themselves, then love of the natural world has a hope of arising from within. And once that love, that personal relationship, arises, then the instinct to protect what they love will follow,” he explains.
“If even a fraction of the kids we meet at camp develop a personal relationship with the outdoor world and have a respect for nature that comes from knowing it directly, maybe we’ll have made a difference,” Paddock says. “Turning kids on to how cool nature is, and how much enjoyment there is to be found in nature, we’re laying the foundation for them to understand, care about — and act upon— the environmental issues they’ll learn about as other educators contribute to their development.”
And for those kids who want to go a step further, this summer EA is offering new Extreme Camps for the first time. The kids will have a chance to rappel down a rock face, go stream hiking, sleep under the stars (with a mosquito net), cook using Dutch ovens and go river rafting.
For Paddock, this is the camp he wishes he could have joined as a kid.
Which gives me an idea to run by him: How about EA camps for adults, and even families? And perhaps it’s time for me to consider a career change — or at least a different kind of summer vacation.
There’s new evidence that our minds thrive away from it all. Children and Nature Network report
Research conducted at the University of Kansas concludes that people from all walks of life show startling cognitive improvement — for instance, a 50 percent boost in creativity — after living for a few days steeped in nature.
“We’ve got information coming at us from social media, electronics and cell phones,” said Atchley, associate professor and chair of psychology at KU. “We constantly shift attention from one source to another, getting all of this information that simulates alarms, warnings and emergencies. Those threats are bad for us. They sap our resources to do the fun thinking and cognition humans are capable of — things like creativity, or being kind and generous, along with our ability to feel good and be in a positive mood.”
The researcher said that nature could stimulate the human mind without the often-menacing distractions of workaday life in the 21st-century.
“Nature is a place where our mind can rest, relax and let down those threat responses,” said Atchley. “Therefore, we have resources left over — to be creative, to be imaginative, to problem solve — that allow us to be better, happier people who engage in a more productive way with others.”
Atchley led a team that conducted initial research on a backpacking trip in Utah with the Remote Associates Test, a word-association exercise used for decades by psychologists to gauge creative intelligence. Her fellow researchers included Paul Atchley, associate professor of psychology at KU, and David Strayer, professor of cognition and neural science at the University of Utah.
Intrigued by positive results, the researchers partnered with Outward Bound, the Golden, Colo.-based nonprofit that leads educational expeditions into nature for people of many backgrounds. About 120 participants on outings in places like Alaska, Colorado and California completed the “RAT” test.
“We worked with a number of backpacking groups that were going out last summer,” Ruth Ann Atchley said. “Four backpacker groups took the test before they hit the trail, and then four different groups did it on the fourth day just like we had done before. The data across age groups —regular folks from age 18 into their 60s — showed an almost 50 percent increase in creativity. It really worked in the sense that it was a well-used measure and we could see such a big difference in these two environments.”
Best of all, she said that the benefits of nature belong to anyone who delves completely into wilderness for an amount of time equivalent to a long weekend.
“There’s growing advantage over time to being in nature,” said Ruth Ann Atchley. “We think that it peaks after about three days of really getting away, turning off the cell phone, not hauling the iPad and not looking for internet coverage. It’s when you have an extended period of time surrounded by that softly fascinating environment that you start seeing all kinds of positive effects in how your mind works.”
The University of Kansas is a major comprehensive research and teaching university. University Relations is the central public relations office for KU’s Lawrence campus.