— Not for republication by Wyoming media.

While the nationwide trend of children spending time outdoors seems to be on a gradual decline, Wyoming shows some tentative promise.

A statewide study (PDF), conducted by the University of Wyoming Survey and Analysis Center, shows that Wyoming children spent almost twice the amount of time outside in August 2010 (3.7 hours a day) in comparison to the national average (two hours).

The survey found that most time spent outside was at home in the yard or neighborhood, doing chores, playing or participating in outdoor sports. But close behind were the 67 percent of kids who spent time in local parks. Also on the list were backpacking, hiking, camping, snow recreation, fishing, hunting, trapping and tracking.

The question of why Wyoming kids are so far ahead of the national average is more complicated to explain.

“We don’t really know all the reasons,” says Wyoming Gov. Matt Mead.

His hunch, he says, is it’s a matter of physical space – kids have an easier time getting outside when outside is vast and when there is a built-in culture of nature-based activities such as wildlife watching, fishing or hunting. And it’s a lot easier when that space is right out your backdoor.

“(Wyoming) is one great, huge playground,” he says.

But even Wyoming has its challenges.

Jack Shea, executive director of the Teton Science School in Jackson, which helped fund the study, says it’s good news that Wyoming is above the national average. But it’s not enough.

“We are slipping,” he says. “We don’t have the baseline for what it was 10 years ago, but we all know kids are probably spending less time outdoors.”

Reports like this come with a sobering reality. Yes, an average of nearly four hours outside per day sounds like a lot – until it is put into perspective. Studies by the Kaiser Family Fund show youth spend more than 7.5 hours per day – more than 53 hours per week – plugged into electronic media: computers, TVs, smart phones. A British study showed that children know more about Pokemon characters than common wildlife. Another study showed that 86 percent of nearly 800 advanced-level biology students ages 16-17 could not identify more than three common plants out of a list of 10.

And that’s only the beginning of the larger-scale problem.

Cause and Effect

Over the past decade, there has been a significant downward trend of children spending time outdoors. Richard Louv in his 2005 book, “Last Child in the Woods,” calls it the “nature deficit disorder.”

“By its broadest interpretation, nature deficit disorder is an atrophied awareness, a diminished ability to find meaning in the life that surrounds us, whatever form it takes,” Louv writes in his latest book, “The Nature Principle.” “This shrinkage of our lives has direct impact on our physical, mental and societal health.”

A report by the Children and Nature Network, which formed after the release of Louv’s book, noted that by 2008, more people lived in urban areas than the countryside; that children’s recognition of wild species continued to decline; that obesity continued to rise; and, ultimately, children’s direct experiences in nature as part of their everyday lives “remain endangered.”

Researchers are only beginning to study the links between declines in outdoor activity and various modern-day issues such as obesity, stress, ADHD, asthma, Vitamin D deficiency – the list goes on. But throughout the studies, one concept remains constant: Contact with nature, however small, is important to our health and well being.

Studies have consistently shown that time spent outdoors decreases stress and increases positive moods, creativity and achievement. For instance, University of Michigan researchers found that high schools with large windows and views of nature had higher standardized test scores, higher graduation rates, a greater percentage of students planning to attend college and fewer reports of criminal behavior.

In some parts of the world, nature is now being used as a prescription. Doctors are not only handing out pills, but trail maps, and therapists are starting patients on a course called “ecotherapy,” a treatment that exposes them to the outdoor world as part of their recovery.

Starting Young

So why does it all matter? As clichéd as it might sound, the term used by experts is “sustainable happiness.” Those who spend time outside tend to be healthier, more creative, less stressed, and ultimately happier.

But the critical link here is nature, and that link to nature starts early.

Most research indicates that adults who make a habit of spending time outdoors started that tradition as children. Their parents took them camping, or their friends took them fishing; regardless of how it happened, it was typically ingrained in them from an early age.

So perhaps the moral of the story is: Get kids outdoors and they will grow into happier adults. But somewhere along the line, that connection being lost.

In 2009, the Outdoor Foundation released a report that showed a 16.7 percent decline in outdoor participation over three years among children ages 6 to 17.

However, even with the decline in that age group, there was a general upward trend in nature-based activities. Mountain biking was up 10 percent. Trail running saw a jump of 15 percent.

At the time of its release, Christine Fanning, executive director of The Outdoor Foundation, said the interviews were conducted during the economic downturn. And when times are hard, people tend to return to their roots.

“They go back to what is simple and affordable and what feeds their soul after they have been beaten up a bit,” she said. “Nature is the one constant thing that never disappoints.”

On that front, Wyoming and the West at large seem to have something figured out when compared to the rest of the country.

The Gallup Healthways Well-Being Index (a study which asks individuals to assess their jobs, finances, physical health, emotional state of mind and communities) showed that traditionally outdoor-oriented states such as Wyoming, Colorado, Utah, Washington and Montana consistently scored at the top of the list for overall well-being. Rocky Mountain States all placed within the top 20. A study of cities and towns found that Boulder, Colorado, was the happiest and healthiest in the nation and towns that scored the highest were most often located in the West.

“I think (nature) is where we’ve come from and where we tend to return when we seek comfort,” Fanning said in 2010. “I think that without nature we would be very different people, and I don’t think we would actually live very happy or healthy existences.”

But happiness isn’t the only thing to worry about, experts say. Some worry the lack of outdoor exposure is creating a learning gap. Shea says kids learn critical lessons about problem solving, creative thinking and independence when they spend time outside.

“The unintended consequences of not having this educational experience may indeed not be known by us yet,” Shea says. “Is there a possibility that the country’s slippage in innovation and other areas may relate to this?”

Others worry a decline in outdoor interest will mean those natural spaces will not be valued when this generation is in charge. And if those places are not valued, what happens when they become threatened?

Leslie Cook, a member of the Teacher Learning Center faculty at the Teton Science School, says with fewer kids in the outdoors, there may be an eventual decline in people going into natural resource jobs. Agencies like the National Park Service have expressed concern over this decline “because they worry about the brain drain that’s about to face them as a lot of their employees get ready to retire,” Cook says.

“Along with that there’s the possibility of a (decrease in) interest in conservation, visiting national parks, and people questioning whether they are valuable resources,” she says. “Worst case scenario, and it makes me nervous even to say it. But I think that’s the fear of what might happen if kids don’t have opportunities as children to experience these places.”

Shea says in a state where it is still the norm to spend time outside – where parents and grandparents still know how to play in nature and pass that down to their children – it’s important to maintain that relationship with the land.

“What worries me is we assume (Wyoming will) always going to be a state like this,” he says. “But that assumption may not be realistic unless we do some work to keep those values strengthened.”

— Not for republication by Wyoming media.

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Published on June 21, 2011

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