Creating the Next Generation of Environmentalists
By Samantha Van Gent
Experiencing the great outdoors is an unforgettable, wild, exciting feeling—at any age. I remember spending countless hours as a child in my neighborhood’s open field, playing on my rope swing, and picking flowers. Beach days, hikes, and camping trips were among my favorite pastimes.
But for too many children these days, nature experiences are constantly interrupted by the world of video games, technology, and a fear of the "unknown." Which raises concerns: who will be the next generation of environmentalists, and who will care to protect our oceans, wild lands, forests, and the health of the planet, if everyone is busy typing, clicking, and staring at the screen?
Many outdoor enthusiasts and advocates believe that in order to inspire appreciation for nature and care for the environment, young people must connect first-hand to nature. In his bestselling book, Last Child in the Woods, author and journalist Richard Louv explains that exposure to nature increases children's creative thinking, stimulates positive childhood growth, and fosters positive environmental ethics and values. By contrast, children who are not introduced to outdoor play are more susceptible to attention disorders, depression, and the most relevant childhood trend, obesity.
"I think if kids are exposed to the outdoors they will develop a relationship with nature, and if they don’t they will develop fear," says Melanie MacInnis, program manager for the Sierra Club's Inner City Outings program. "There is a lot of fear of the unknown."
This fear can stem from encountering wild places like a deep forest or a vast beautiful ocean, where it is unknown what or who is in there.
Today, many parents are reluctant to let children play outside for safety reasons, or because of time constraints. "Parents would rather have their kids safe inside watching TV, because they know where their kids are at and what their doing," explains MacInnis. In addition, many public schools have cut down on field trips to reduce the risk of accidents and lawsuits.
In Last Child in the Woods, Louv coined the term, "Nature Deficit Disorder," which can be defined as a disconnect modern American children have with the natural world. Louv's research indicates that children are spending 40-65+ hours using electronics, and only 1 out of 5 children walk or ride a bike to school.
"Absolutely, there is a growing concern with children facing Nature Deficit Disorder," says MacInnis.
But there is hope for future generations. MacInnis explains that with repeated exposure to nature and natural settings, kids form relationships with the environment—insects, animals, landscapes, trees—whether at the playground, hiking in a forest, or rafting on a river.
Organizations like the Sierra Club organize outdoor trips locally, nationally, and internationally for people of all ages. The Club's Inner City Outings (ICO) program offers wilderness experiences to inner-city children and adults who may not otherwise have the opportunity to venture out of the city.
There are 50 volunteer-run ICO groups across the USA, with each group selecting specific age groups and outdoor activity. For example, the Seattle Inner City Outings group works with selected elementary, middle, and high schools to provide and ensure repeated exposure of the outdoors.
Programs like ICO are actively recruiting future environmentalists. A positive next step could be introducing environmental curriculum in schools that is not technology-based. For now, it’s up to all of us to create and make accessible outdoor experiences for our current and future children.
Creating environmental stewardship and fostering appreciation for plants and animals is vital. It’s time to make those childhood dreams of hiking in parks, swimming in the ocean, and sitting around a family campfire, into a reality.
All photos courtesy of Inner City Outings.
Samantha Van Gent is a media intern with the Sierra Club.