Minnesota Parent: Nature Deficit

Note: Watch for the “Minnesota Bound” (KARE-11 NBC) script version of this story, airing April 15th (10:30 p.m. CT) and April 21st (6:30 p.m. CT) Entitled “Last Child in the Woods”

My son has a fort. It’s wedged between two evergreens in our backyard, and houses such treasures as slabs of wood, and an old green army tarp hung by bungee cords for a wall. And while I sometimes sigh loudly at the amount of items that find their way into my son’s fort, I leave it alone. A few years ago my Father told me that a boys fort in nature is his sanctuary and refuge. “Treat it as such,” he warned.

I would never argue that point, as my past childhood memories are steeped in the great outdoors. When I think about it, many of the most cherished memories all involve either a vacation up north or my own fort nestled in a thicket. I want my son to have those memories, too. But I worry the experience won’t be the same. And I’m not the only parent thinking this. There seems to be a growing disconnect between our kids and nature.

According to Richard Louv, author of Last Child in the Woods and the Nature Principle, it’s a phenomenon – and not a good one. It was Louv who first came up with “Nature deficit disorder” when his Last Child in the Woods book came out in 2005. His hypothesis is basically that humans, especially children, are spending less time outdoors.

Why is this happening? The reasons are several, and a few, obvious. One of the reasons I relate to – good old “stranger danger”. It’s the reason I’m sneaking peeks in the backyard to make sure my son isn’t snatched out of his nature sanctuary. Or as Louv so eloquently puts it in his book – the “Bogeyman syndrome”. “Fear is the most potent force that prevents parents from allowing their children the freedom they themselves enjoyed when they were young,” explained Louv, “Fear is the emotion that separates a developing child from the full, essential benefits of nature. Fear of traffic, of crime, of stranger-danger – and of nature itself.” My boundaries growing up included the entire town. Admittedly, my son’s boundaries are tighter. In a 2002 survey by TNS Intersearch for American Demographics Magazine, 56% of parents in the U.S. said that by the time they were 10 years old they were allowed to walk or bike to school – but only 36% of those same parents said their own kids should be allowed to do the same.

But we aren’t just afraid of the “Bogeyman” in the form of a kidnapper. Nature itself can be the Bogeyman. It can be tough for us parents to loosen the leash, especially with being bombarded by bad news via the media. But keeping things, including nature, in perspective is always a good rule of thumb. “We may fear the outdoors, but kids generally face more dangers in their own home,” explained Louv.

The loss of wild surroundings is another factor. In more and more cities and suburban neighborhoods, it can be tough to find green. But green can be found – it just might require some looking. And it’s worth it – a team study by researchers in Sweden, Australia and the U.S., found that when children played in an environment dominated by play structures rather than natural elements, the kids established social hierarchy through physical competence. But just offering a grassy area with a few shrubs, and the kids engaged in more fantasy play, and their social standing became based less on physical abilities and more on language and creativity skills. And a bonus: open play also provided greater opportunities for boys and girls to play together in egalitarian ways.

Even if you find a park or nature preserve, kids are seeing more restricted access. “Do not walk off the trail” one sign recently blared at me at neighborhood park. Everyone understands that the natural environment must be protected, but Louv questions the cost of that protection in some instances, and the direct impact it has on the kid’s relationship with nature. Even environmentalists and educators, he points out, say “look but don’t touch”. Sometimes that’s the only way to learn, especially for kids.

And a third obvious cause, of course, is the increased draw to spend time inside, aka: screen time, including computer, video games and television. The average American child spends 44 hours a week with some form of electronic media. Can you imagine what that number will be 10 years from now?

The effects of this are sobering. Our kids have a limited respect for their natural surroundings. Louv points out that this will be an even bigger problem a few years down the road. “An increasing pace in the last three decades, approximately, of a rapid disengagement between children and direct experiences in nature…has profound implications, not only for the health of future generations but for the health of the Earth itself.”

Research has shown that people who care about the Earth when they are adults spent time in the natural world as children. GreenHeart Education stresses that we owe it to our students and kids to give them unmediated time in Nature, so that, as one Native elder explained, “the land will remember them” – so they will feel grounded and have a sense of “home” that they care about.

Another effect of nature deficit may be the development of attention disorders. Louv suggests that going outside and being in the quiet and calm can help kids. “It’s a problem because kids who don’t get nature-time seem more prone to anxiety, depression and attention-deficit problems.” As a Mother of an ADHD son, this research is worth watching. Some tips include encouraging your child to play in outdoor green spaces, study or play in rooms with views of nature, or plant and care for gardens and trees at your place of residence. Louv explains that although the impact of nature experiences on attention disorders and on wider aspects of child health is in its infancy and easily challenged, it’s not to be brushed over. “Yes, more research is needed, but we do not have to wait for it. If, as a growing body of evidence recommends, contact with nature is as important to children as good nutrition and adequate sleep, then current trends in children’s access to nature need to be addressed,” said Louv.

Childhood obesity is another growing problem, and about 9 million children (ages 6 – 11) are overweight or obese. (The Institute of Medicine) It’s time for kids to move more, which means getting up off the couches and heading outside and away from screen-time. Period. Blogger Marc Bekoff of Psychology Today, said it may be an up-hill battle for parents, but it’s time to get kids away from their couches, computers, desks and other electronic devices. “We need to rewild our children before it’s too late,” he stressed.

While my generation may have been the first to experience Atari and MTV, we also still played kick the can, fished in creeks, and had more free-roaming boundaries outside. It’s time for parents and Mother Nature to work together. While some good works are already taking root, such as environment-based education movement, a simple-living movement, and schoolyard greening, there’s always more work to be done for the cause.

With luck, our kids will realize their sense of purpose in this cause. After all, I can only hope that, someday, my son will want his own children to have an outdoor fort. A refuge, a sanctuary. Army tarp and all.

Side Bar:

Some fun ideas to get things going with the cause!

Got dirt? A truckload of dirt costs about the same as a video game, so how about buying a load and throwing in some plastic buckets and shovels?

Plant some native plants, or maintain a birdbath. Invite some native flora and fauna in your kid’s life.

Revive some old family traditions. Collect lightning bugs at dusk, and release them at dawn. Collect feathers or leaves. How about crawdadding? (tie a piece of bacon on a string, and drop it into a creek or pond. Wait until a crawdad tugs)

Encourage kids to go camping just in the backyard. But them a tent or help them make a canvas tepee and leave it up all summer. (Join the NWF’s Great American Backyard Campout – www.nwf.org)

Tell your kids stories about your special childhood places in nature, then help them find their own. Encourage kids to build a fort, hut or tree house.

Combine tech with nature and go digital –with nature photography that is. Digi cameras save money on film, and are decreasingly expensive.

Go on a moth walk. It sounds weird, but it’s worth it. Mix (in a blender) overripe fruit or wine, and blend in honey, sugar or molasses. Go outside at sunset and spread the goop on a few trees or untreated wood. Go back when it’s dark, flashlight in hand, and see what you’ve lured. With luck, you’ll probably find moths, ants, earwigs and other bugs.

It’s Minnesota, so in the winters build an igloo or snow cave, or go sledding, snow tubing, or snowshoeing. Stay outside!

Fun Outdoor quotes to think about:

“Not everything that counts can be counted. And not everything that can be counted counts.” – A sign over Albert Einstein’s office at Princeton University.

 “It takes a universe to make a child, both in outer form and inner spirit. It takes a universe to educate a child, a universe to fulfill a child.” – Thomas Berry


Scary, Scary Bugs? No way! (Mn. Parent Magazine)

European-Praying-Mantis.jpgAt any time, it is estimated that there are some 10 quintillion (10,000,000,000,000,000,000) individual insects alive. Eeeek. Its no wonder that some bugs, at large, can freak folks out. Especially kids.

“They are so different from us,” explained Dr. Bruce Giebink, Entomologist,”When you take a look at them, close up, they truly look like creatures from outer space.

And Dr. Bruce should know. Known as Dr. Bruce the “Bug” Guy, he has built a successful business creating education shows for kids that include hands-on, live bugs.

He said that a lot of it is the fear of the unknown. “A lot of times, they surprise people,” he said, “They can cause a startle response. A lot of people really do not know a whole lot about insects. And, they may not be very good at identifying them, so they kind of put a blanket over all bugs. Since a few of them can hurt you, they are over cautious when they don’t know about something.”

Dr. Bruce put on his bug presentation for my son, Hayden’s birthday one year. Being that the room was full of young boys, you could feel the excitement in the air. Boys and bugs. Nothing better, right? They ooed and aahed over the hissing cockroaches, and got a close up look at a scorpion. But they all recoiled in horror when Dr. Bruce brought out sweet “Rosie”. Well, in their defense Rosie is a big Tarantula. Their eyes watched warily as her hairy legs slowly moved up Dr. Bruce’s arm. But in time, Rosie won them over, and by the end of the program, most boys had no problem holding her right in their palms. However, when one of his large Praying Mantises flew out of his hand and landed on my son’s head, all cool-headedness was forgotten, and chaos ensued. Don’t worry, though. Remarkably, the Praying Mantis made it back into his cage un hurt.

So what’s the deal with bugs? What seem to be the “scariest” bug, that really shouldn’t’ be scary at all? Dr. Bruce rates them on their scale of size, scariness, and your likelihood to encounter them right in your backyard:

#1 – InfraorderAnisoptera- (aka: The Dragon Fly)

The Dragon Fly: Dr. Bruce said he would put the dragon fly has number one on his list as a creepy looking bug that’s misunderstood. Dragonflies are a large insect, and especially here in Minnesota, they’re around a lot. If you look at them close up, they look intimidating. And if you pick them up, they’ll thrash around. And they do nip you, although Dr. Bruce said they seldom break the skin. Even if they did, they don’t have any venom or anything that’s harmful. “More than anything, it startles you,” explained Dr. Bruce, “they don’t attack people. Their territorial, and if you walk in their territory, they will buzz you.” He said the next time you see a dragonfly buzzing around the yard, keep in mind that it’s a very beneficial insect, which most scary-looking predators are, he pointed out. They eat a lot of flying insects, including mosquitoes, and biting gnats. If you live around water, ponds and streams and rivers, where the water quality is good, you are going to have your share of dragonflies.

#2 Euborellia annulipes (aka: The Ear Whig) You might not know the name, but if you live in Minnesota, you see them. They are a fearsome looking but that is around a half inch to 3 quarters of an inch long. But the kicker is they have scary looking pinchers on the tip of their abdomen. “You would think, just because of the name, that they have something to do with your ears,” laughed Dr. Bruce,” in old times, folks believed they would crawl in people’s ears and cause lots of problems. Not true.” Dr. Bruce explained that 10 to 12 years ago, they were not common west of Michigan. But with Minnesota’s higher humidity levels lately, and more humid hot summers, it has been favoring the ear whig. They have been expanding steadily westward. Do they bite? Well, they can pinch, according to Dr. Bruce. “It’s not anything that amounts to much. It’s a defensive maneuver. They’ll pinch you if they need to protect their life.”

#3 – Tabanidae and Chrysops (aka: Horse Flies and Deer flies)

Everyone has had their battles with number three on Dr. Bruce’s list, especially around mid summer in Minnesota. If you’re around a swampy area, on a hot summer day near the edge of the woods, they will downright drive you crazy. “They can be extremely annoying,” admitted Dr. Bruce, “and they have no finesse. Their mouthpart is like a little dagger, and they don’t wiggle it in, like a mosquito, they jam it in. And they like to land right on your head. Some kids might think they have a dangerous bite, but they don’t. All kids have different comfort levels with it comes to bugs.” He further explained that horse flies and deer flies aren’t shy about the fact that they’re after a meal. And if there’s not a deer or other blood source around, people will do just fine.

#4 – Dolomedes Tenebrosus (aka: Fishing Spider: known as nursery web spiders: they do not build webs)

While spiders as a whole might be number one on most people’s list, Dr. Bruce wanted to hone in on a specific spider that loves Minnesota…and its boats. Nothing says Minnesota more than the name “fishing spider” right? Fishing Spiders are one of Minnesota’s largest spiders. They have fairly long legs, and a number of them have a striped pattern on them. They can vary quite a bit in color, ranging from a light grey to black. Dr. Bruce said most Minnesotan’s are sharing their boats with these little creatures. “You’re bound to find them in and around water, quite often right when you hop into your boat,” he said. How big? Well, the body isn’t that big, but when you factor in the leg length, they can be around 3 inches long. And they can move fast. “Some kids may think they’re a brown recluse spider, and they may think they are common here, but they are very very rare. But then again, any spider that has fangs that are sharp enough to bite and long enough to penetrate can give you a bite. We have such individual variation in our immune system on how we react. Some don’t react at all, while some puff up quite a bit.”

While we all know deep down that most bugs are harmless, there’s always a few that aren’t.

“There’s only a handful of bad ones that kind of spoil it for all the rest,” said Dr. Bruce, explaining you want to minimize your exposure to these. Dr. Bruce said to keep an eye out for this “bad” bug come spring time, even though he says their not a true insect but still in under the bug category. And Minnesotan’s know all kinds of them: Arachnids in the order Ixodida (aka: The Wood Tick and the Deer Tick).

Dr. Bruce said last year they weren’t quite as bad, but a few years ago they started showing up as early as late March and early April. He said the Wood Tick (or American Dog Tick) is the bigger ones, around the size of your little finger nail. And they’re the ones that Fido likes to pick up in the backyard. The really concerning one is the smaller of the two, the Deer Tick, especially the little nymphs. “They’re really small, and the nymphs are basically the immature stages of the deer tick. And the deer tick is not big to start with.” Still send the kids outdoors, but take some precautions. If your wading through the woods, try to stay on the path where the grass is short. And try tucking in your pants into your socks. “You’ll look like a dork,” he laughs, “and if you wear light pants or khakis you can see them better and flick them off before they get to you.” He also added that DEET is a very effective repellant, but it is not recommend that you spray DEET directly on your child’s skin. He recommended spraying it only on clothing, especially pants.

Mainly, Dr. Bruce said to remember that most of the time bugs get a bad rap. “I want to educate kids and adults alike,” he said, “as a society its kind of us against the bugs. If people learn to tolerate and co-exist, I think a lot of creatures in the natural word, insects included, would enjoy the outdoors more.”

All I know is, regardless of his praying mantis moment at his birthday party, my son likes to buy Praying Mantis pods every spring, and plant them in our flowers pots by the front door. He’s going on 15 years old now. Go figure.