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Young People Aren’t Connecting With Nature

November 7, 2016

Forget Instagram. This is where true meaning lies.

I was recently mocking the Pokemon Go craze, which manifests itself in my local park in the form of dazed-looking teenagers, wandering aimlessly while holding a cell phone at arm’s length. My son, who naturally is familiar with my worldview and knew where this was headed, stopped me and pointed out: “Well, at least it is getting kids outside.”

That is both true, and sad. Sad that it takes Pokemon Go to get kids out in nature more often, and sad that all the indoor devices and distractions are winning over the lure and fun of the outdoors. I used to worry that my generation would be leaving our children an impoverished version of nature (which we will). But I recently also started to think that they might not notice, because they are so disengaged from the unplugged, natural spaces that are all around us.

Timothy Egan took to a raft on the Colorado River with his son to write about this phenomenon and what it portends for our national parks (where visitors are increasingly old and white). And his son, Casey, sort of learns that the world will not stop and he will not disappear into a black hole if he is unplugged for a week (and that the wild offers other distractions and pleasures). But still. The article wasn’t that reassuring, and mainly you get the impression that Casey did not come away from the adventure as an outdoors enthusiast so much as he realized that rafting down the Colorado with no cell service didn’t suck as bad as he thought it might.

The story, which is in Nat Geo, does a good job profiling some groups of young people who actually do love the outdoors and our national parks. But the stats it includes are daunting:

“Young people,” Jonathan Jarvis, director of the National Park Service, told me, “are more separated from the natural world than perhaps any generation before them.” That’s quite an accusation. Jarvis has been saying this for a couple of years, in different forums in the run-up to this year’s Park Service centennial. “There are times when it seems as if the national parks have never been more passé than in the age of the iPhone,” he warned in one speech. “The national parks risk obsolescence in the eyes of an increasingly diverse and distracted demographic.”

Obsolescence? How could that be? Last year national park sites clocked 307 million visits—an all-time record. Fifty-seven locations set high-water marks for attendance. Oh, but don’t be deceived by the numbers, Jarvis advised during an interview in his office, a few blocks from the White House. Take a closer look at who’s going through the gates: people like the silver-haired Jarvis and, well … me. It’s a risky thing, this generalizing about generations. Did our kids fall out of love with America’s Best Idea? Or maybe they never fell in love to begin with. Anecdotally, I have noticed a passion deficit among Casey and his friends. And technology, as a companion, is a must. A large majority of millennials—71 percent—said they would be “very uncomfortable” on a one-week vacation without connectivity, according to a survey by Destination Analysts. For boomers, the figure was 33 percent.

Having been to Yellowstone with my family last summer, and appalled by the crowds, selfie-sticks and traffic, the lack of Millennial interest in the National Parks may become a boon to anyone who does spend time in them. But this would be a collateral benefit in a trend that could have dire long-term implications, which the Guardian’s George Monbiot lays out in a related essay this week, lamenting the removal of children from the outdoors, called “If Children Lose Contact With Nature They Won’t Fight For It“:

We don’t have to disparage the indoor world, which has its own rich ecosystem, to lament children’s disconnection from the outdoor world. But the experiences the two spheres offer are entirely different. There is no substitute for what takes place outdoors; not least because the greatest joys of nature are unscripted. The thought that most of our children will never swim among phosphorescent plankton at night, will never be startled by a salmon leaping, a dolphin breaching, the stoop of a peregrine, or the rustle of a grass snake is almost as sad as the thought that their children might not have the opportunity.

The remarkable collapse of children’s engagement with nature – which is even faster than the collapse of the natural world – is recorded in Richard Louv’s book Last Child in the Woods, and in a report published recently by the National Trust. Since the 1970s the area in which children may roam without supervision has decreased by almost 90%. In one generation the proportion of children regularly playing in wild places in the UK has fallen from more than half to fewer than one in 10. In the US, in just six years (1997-2003) children with particular outdoor hobbies fell by half. Eleven- to 15-year-olds in Britain now spend, on average, half their waking day in front of a screen.

Monbiot points out that not much good will come of this in a world in which Nature and the Planet need mobilization, activism, and committed advocacy (not to mention the fact that more kids are develoing attention deficits, obesity, etc., etc).

I am sympathetic to the teenagers. If I was a 12-year old today I would be similarly entranced by everything going on within the confines of a smartphone, iPad or computer. There is nothing wrong with kids today. They are simply exposed to more temptations than I was. But I have learned that simply saying “go outside” just won’t cut it. Even if they do go outside to the local park, it is often empty. Instead, I have learned that the most effective and rewarding strategy is to invite my children to join me outdoors. It’s a win-win-win: they get outside and off their screens, you get to spend time with them with no electronic distractions, and they (just maybe) will learn to love and appreciate the outdoors.

Yesterday I did just this, and invited my son to ride his bicycle with me to Arlington National cemetery. On the way we stopped at Roosevelt Island. In all, we rode maybe 12 miles on a beautiful Fall day. We talked about lots of things, scoffed at all the people taking endless pictures of themselves or staring down at their phones, and learned some new bike routes. At the end my son looked at me and asked: “can we do this sort of thing more often?”

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3 Comments leave one →
  1. hmunro permalink
    November 7, 2016 5:55 pm

    I share George Monbiot’s fear that if children lose contact with nature they won’t fight for it — just as I worry that so many young people seem to be fundamentally disconnected from *themselves* these days. But in your past couple of posts I think you’ve offered a cure for both woes: Turn off the darned wi-fi and take a hike (or ride a bike)! Your son is lucky to have a father who is modeling that lesson by example.

  2. November 8, 2016 1:23 pm

    Yes I believe it is very important to get kids outside young and often so they have plenty of time to explore the whole big wondrous world of nature and hopefully fall in love with it. We try to do at least a couple electronic free weeks during the year. Our son seems to quickly adjust to being electronic free and we enjoy being free of having to nag about turning electronics off or monitoring use. We have also taken out groups of kids on multi day trips and they seem to quickly forget the electronics and just enjoy being together and outside.

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