Children's average time spent outdoors is slightly more than 30 minutes per day. This trend--the erosion of contact with nature--is something that nature writer Robert Michael Pyle coined the "extinction of experience."
Children aren't the only ones plugged in and tuned out to nature. Typical 18-55year olds in the U.S. spend 30 percent of their leisure time online. The average American adult spends nearly 5 hours per day watching television. A 2009 study found most Americans spend at least 8 and a half hours per day looking at a computer, TV, phone, and other screens, frequently doing two or three at once.
Nature has a way of healing. Studies show that children engage in more imaginative and dramatic play in nature. Children with Attention Deficit Disorder show less severe symptoms and fare better on attention exercises after activities in natural settings. School yard trees, nature centers, gardens, and bird feeders are associated with higher scores for appreciation and concern among junior high students.
Natural settings help to decrease incidents of aggression and increase creative social interactions. Even hospital patients recover more quickly from some illnesses when they are in a room with a view of nature.
Highly-focused "near work" (computers, video games, phones, etc.) is taking a toll on our bodies, particularly our vision. Scientists have recently discovered an alarming increase in nearsightedness, which has risen in the U.S. to 42 percent of people ages 12-54, up from 25 percent in 1970. Parts of Southeast Asia have observed an increase in nearsightedness of nearly 80 percent in men. Scientists think the cause is too little time outdoors and too much "near work" at a young age.
Studies show that children who spend time outdoors have a significantly lower rate of nearsightedness later in life than children who spend time indoors doing extensive "near work." It appears that sunlight, a distant field of view, and peripheral objects all trigger the eye to grow and develop normally. The combination of staying indoors hunched over our computers and gawking at our TVs may cause the eye to develop slightly elongated (resulting in nearsightedness).
What makes a person care for nature? Research shows that 77 percent of all people in environmental careers surveyed stated that they chose their career and have the attitudes towards the environmental because of frequent, positive, unstructured play in nature as a child. This is significant because we now have generations of children and adults who have not had frequent nature play experiences, and adults value the environment less if they have not connected with nature as a child. Connections with special places are a result of frequent visits over a long period of time.
The official start to summer begins soon. Drag the kids, and yourself, outside and have fun. Take a hike in one of the Portage Parks. Fly a kite. Read a book in the shade. Have a picnic. Ride your bike on the Headwaters Trail. Roast marshmallows. Collect fireflies. Climb a tree. Walk barefoot. Splash in puddles. Go fishing. Skip stones in Seneca Ponds. Build a fort. Collect rocks. I guarantee these memories will last longer than the latest episode of Sponge Bob or the last e-mail you read. Make time for nature every day. It just might be the most important thing you can do for the environment.
Editor's note: Matt Sorrick is Director of the Center for Science Education at Hiram College.
Green Portage is a monthly feature of the Streetsboro Gateway News in cooperation with the Portage Park District.