Cooped up kids


Ah, spring.

The crocuses are blooming, the mittens are put away, the children are riding bikes, jumping rope, climbing trees … uh, scratch that about the children.

The children are inside, playing video games, watching television or on the computer. If they’re outside, they’re playing organized sports, supervised by coaches and attended by doting parents. Or they’re in the car dashing between clarinet lessons, tutoring sessions and play dates arranged by adults.

With fewer open spaces, paranoid parents and enough electronic gadgets to keep them cloistered for months, children are less and less likely to have unsupervised, outside fun. These days it’s hard to find children riding bikes, climbing trees or paying pick-up ball games with nary an adult in sight.

The disconnect is so deep that parenting magazines include tips on how to play backyard games like “red light, green light.” A new publication, Wondertime, actually ran a feature on how to teach a child to climb a tree.

While some shrug and argue that it’s a sign of our times, many others feel this new lifestyle is making children fatter, more isolated, less creative and less attached to the environment, raising concerns about the future.

The big question:

Should we worry because boys and girls are out of the woods – literally?

“When you think about it, human children for eons of history went outside and played and worked in nature for much of their childhood. In the space of two or three decades in Western society, that’s in danger of disappearing,” said Richard Louv, author of “Last Child in the Woods: Saving Our Children From Nature-Deficit Disorder” (Algonquin, $13.95).

Louv, a California newspaper columnist, coined the phrase “nature-deficit disorder” to raise the alarm about children losing touch with the real world in favor of the virtual world.

So what’s wrong with kids whose encounters with nature are more likely to be on the Discover Channel than in their back yards?

Plenty, according to Louv and other childhood experts.

Take health, for example. An alarming new study by the International Association for the Study of Obesity projected that nearly half of all the children in North and South America will be overweight by 2010.

There are many reasons for the epidemic of childhood obesity, including overeating and calorie-filled junk food. But much of it is due to a decline in activity, a decline that cannot be made up by organized games and practices, said Sue Shapses, an associate professor of nutritional sciences at Rutgers University and co-director of the New Jersey Obesity Group.

“Someone might read this and say, “Oh, my kid plays soccer,”‘ she said. “If you have an hour (of activity) scheduled every other week, or half an hour a day, it’s not going to be as much as kids playing outdoors,” she said.

Declines in physical education classes and daily recess are also to blame, she said.

Some experts believe children who spend hours alone, watching television or playing computer games, are also at risk of becoming socially isolated. An analysis of children’s artwork, a joint project of Oregon State University and the Kaye Academic College of Education in Israel, confirmed that trend.

The project recruited 500 schoolchildren in grades 1 through 5 in Corvallis, Ore., and Beer-Shiva, Israel, and asked them to illustrate their favorite activities.

While playing sports was No. 1, of the remaining 60 percent of kids, one in four drew pictures of themselves playing alone or watching TV by themselves.

“They spend less time developing social skills and getting along – things that we all need later in life, in the workplace or elsewhere,” said Nell O’Malley of the College of Education at Oregon State University, a co-author of the project.

“Left unattended, we’re looking at a future of people who don’t have the social skills and some of the moral development that comes with social interaction,” she said. “You develop empathy by interacting with people. Children at a certain point need to be learning about themselves in relationship to others.”

The inactivity of today’s kids might even influence public policy: The staff at the National Wildlife Foundation thinks that today’s children might not be as effective advocates for the environment because the outdoors has no value for them.

“What the research says is that people get attached to nature by spending time in nature. Even if you grew up in a city, there were trees and parks. For us the issue is, if we don’t get kids out more, how are they going to connect to nature?” asked Kevin Coyne, vice president of education for the federation. “Our conclusion is that, in the larger area of wildlife conservation and the protection of the environment, this is really a threat.”

For Louv, however, all those practical reasons give way to something more profound: the sense of wonder that nature instills in human beings.

“To me, the most important word is wonder, a sense of where you are in the universe and the awe that should inspire,” he said. “You’re not going to get that playing “Grand Theft Auto.”‘

To Louv, nature is not strictly the majesty of the wilderness, something out of an Ansel Adams photograph.

“Nature can be a ravine behind the house or a little woods at the end of a cul-de-sac. That’s maybe even more important than Yosemite,” he said. “That wonder can begin when a 4-year-old goes out in his back yard and listens to the leaves and turns over a rock and sees a universe of bugs.”

Fear of adult predators is one reason why kids don’t have unstructured time outside. While such fears are understandable, fed by media reports of stalkers and child molesters, many experts feel the concern is far more inflated than it should be. Actual incidents of strangers snatching children off the streets are rare – most incidents occur with an adult who knows the child.

Kids today have a higher chance of encountering a predator online than in their communities, Coyne said.

The loss of the backyard culture, in which there were supportive adults around so families felt safe letting their children roam the neighborhood, also feeds fears of stranger danger.

“Crime may not be greater today, but that culture of fear certainly is. We’ve replaced children’s freedom with a great deal of isolation that ultimately might not be that healthy,” O’Malley said.

Supportive neighborhoods have a positive effect on children’s freedom to be outside – and their physical health, research indicates.

A study by the RAND Corp. of 3,000 households in Los Angeles found that, in neighborhoods identified as supportive, children were half as likely to be overweight as children in other neighborhoods. Supportive neighborhoods were defined as close-knit, with adults who watched out for children’s safety, spoke up when they saw bad behavior and were willing to help a neighbor.

“Kids are less likely to be playing outside if people are not watching out for them,” said Deborah Cohen, the senior natural scientist for RAND who conducted the study. “In another study, we found that having parks around is another very good predictor of how much people exercise.

“I think this has a lot of messages about the way we deal with overweight and the lack of physical activity. We tell each individual they have to do something different, as if they themselves are responsible,” said Cohen, a physician. “Here we clearly see that environment makes a difference. Beyond healthy families, we need healthy communities.”

Peggy O’Crowley covers family issues for The Star-Ledger of Newark, N.J. She can be contacted at [email protected]