Children and nature: Growing estranged

  • Article by: JOHN GUNYOU
  • Updated: April 21, 2014 - 6:11 PM

Kids aren’t getting the exposure they need for developing physical and emotional health. Here’s how the parks can help.

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My dad taught me years ago we don’t plant trees for ourselves, we plant them for our grandchildren. It was the most important lesson he ever taught me — living my life today as if the future matters.

 

In my role as chairman of the Three Rivers Park Board, I have come to appreciate his farsighted philosophy even more. It’s not simply about planting trees. It’s about a commitment to long-term stewardship — of our environment, and for our children.

A book was published a few years ago making this very point. “Last Child in the Woods” documents the importance of direct exposure to nature for developing the physical and emotional health of children. Among the startling factoids:

• By the 1990s, the radius around the home where children were allowed to roam on their own had shrunk to a ninth of what it had been in 1970.

• Today, average 8-year-olds are better able to identify cartoon characters than native species, such as beetles and oak trees, in their own community.

• The rate at which doctors prescribe antidepressants to children has doubled in the last five years, and recent studies show that too much computer use spells trouble for the developing mind.

The subtitle of “Last Child in the Woods” is “Saving Our Children from Nature-Deficit Disorder.” I’m pretty sure that’s not a diagnosis recognized by the American Psychiatric Association, but it is a description of the human costs of alienation from nature.

I was fortunate to grow up in a home involved in scouting. In fact, I still have my 90-year-old uncle’s dog-eared “Handbook for Boys.” My summers were spent at Camp Lakota, and my first exposure to Minnesota’s Boundary Waters was the year I became our troop’s first Eagle Scout.

Prompted by a fiercely independent mother, who was liberated well ahead of her time, we spent many a family vacation in tents, in canoes and on trails that would never be paved. Most children today are not so fortunate.

That’s why our work at Three Rivers is so important to the future of both our children and our communities. With our shrinking natural worlds, we offer an opportunity for children to reconnect with nature. We translate that commitment into reality through our many nature centers, camps and outdoor programs.

Three Rivers is home to hundreds of animal species indigenous to Minnesota’s woods, prairies and wetlands. Kids of all ages can get up close and personal at one of our several nature centers staffed by inspirationally zealous naturalists and volunteers who live to share their love of nature.

We also offer many opportunities for youth groups, and we provide financial assistance through our Wonder Fund for individuals, schools, and agencies serving children and young adults. Our successful partnerships with schools are now being expanded to reach more young people through field trips, classroom visits and after-school learning activities.

For organized groups, we offer backpack programs for exploring the outdoors; overnight stays in cabins or tents, and even Build-a-Badge programs for groups working toward specific awards.

I am particularly proud of our summer camp program, where we help kids gain an appreciation for nature while they make new friends and lifelong memories. Three Rivers offers camps for ages 4 to 15, with themes ranging from nature exploration, outdoor recreation and golf to fishing, farming, art and Minnesota history.

The year Dad passed away, my own children joined me on Arbor Day to each plant a tree in his memory. More recently, I planted another tree for my first grandchild. Those trees reconnect my family with nature, and leave a living legacy for generations to come.

 

John Gunyou is board chairman of Three Rivers Park District, which has 27,000 acres of natural areas, 20 regional parks and reserves, five nature centers, and 300 miles of trails throughout the western Twin Cities suburbs.

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