Nature – The Importance of The Natural World On Human Well-Being
Nature – the importance of the natural world on human well-being has been seriously undermined. Camp gives kids and an opportunity to gain first-hand experience of the benefits of being in green places and around bodies of water; helps them feel comfortable and welcome in nature; and ideally creates or strengthens a bond with the outdoors that inspires teenagers to protect natural spaces.
Summer camp is an evocative term for most people, even those who have never had the good fortune to attend one. Regardless of experience, or lack thereof, when most people think of summer camp, they picture a lake, trees with cabins tucked in beneath them, rising hills, camp fires under a million stars…(and maybe some bugs and a critter or two). The setting of summer camp has appealed to generations, and still dominates popular culture depictions. A setting close to nature was THE driving factor behind the founding of the very first summer camps, generations ago. Pretty much since the development of reliable, safe, long distance transportation, city dwellers have been sending their children out of urban setting and into natural ones for the summer. The reasons why have not really changed, though they are much better understood today than they were in 1902, and they are more relevant today than they were 100+ years ago.
Camp Hiawatha ran from the 1920s to 1984 when MTC was founded.
To begin to understand the critical importance of kids spending time in nature, we must first appreciate how much time children and teens used to spend in nature, and how little they do now. It should be noted that this is not just about young people either. Adults are suffer from chronically low doses of nature also. Worldwide, more than half the population now live in cities. In North America, it is closer to 80%. Compare this to the 1940’s and 50’s, when only half of Americans lived in cities. A more painful statistic for modern parents is the “radius of play”; that is, the distance from home a child was free to play, unsupervised. As recently as 1980, the average child’s “radius of play” was approximately 1 mile. For most kids, that distance included a school, a neighborhood park, multiple friend’s houses, maybe some wooded areas, abandoned lots, or a commercial district. Today, that radius is measured in feet, and not a lot of them. Perhaps 200 feet. This reduction in space for kids to play is paralleled by the dramatic decline of time spent outdoors. Today’s kids spend, on average, one third or less of the time outdoors than their own mothers did. This holds true for boys and girls, rural and urban. The reasons why both the radius of play and time spent outdoors have shrunk are numerous, but the biggest four factors are i) the loss of open spaces to development, ii) the loss of neighborhood schools that allow kids to walk or bike, iii) parental fears, and a result of those three factors, iv) the lack of peers outside playing. It’s not much fun playing outside if everyone else is inside, online.
This shift from rural landscapes and the associated open spaces, access to woods and water, familiarity with animals, and ability to find quiet and solitude has also seen a dramatic rise in stress and anxiety disorders, as well as a stunning rise in childhood allergies and attention disorder diagnoses. Peter Grey, a prominent Boston child and evolutionary psychologist and researcher, argues that the loss of risky, child directed play, is directly linked to the rise in anxiety disorders among children and adults. The mechanism, as Grey argues, is direct and simple: Less time spent inducing a degree of fear during play robs kids of the ability to continue operating with those feelings. The figurehead of the kids in nature movement, Richard Louv, coined the term NDD (Nature Deficit Disorder) to describe the phenomenon of kids spending less time in the woods and water, and suggested that this lack was linked to the rise in the ADD diagnosis. The correlation is evident when we chart time spent outdoors, particularly in undirected play, and the rate of diagnosis of ADD. As the one line crashes, the other takes off with an eerie symmetry. This is something camp directors have known for years. Campers who come to camp from a school setting in which they struggle to keep up with peers while being asked to sit for 6+ hours per day, who find themselves on the wrong side of overworked teachers, suddenly find themselves flourishing. As Florence Williams so accurately puts it, “how can you bounce off the walls when there are no walls?” These kids experience a learning environment that allows them to choose to play to their strengths, and to their intelligence.
Campers enjoying guitar lessons in the stunning backdrop of outdoor Maine.
There are theories that point to a scientific observable, causal explanation for why the link between declining outdoor time and rising rates of ADHD is so strong. Attention Restoration Theory (ART) holds that directed attention is a finite resource that we draw down when we attend to a cognitive task. As we use it up, we tend towards irritability, distraction, and inefficiency. Time in nature, with its patterns, sounds, and textures that effortlessly hold our attention (so called soft fascination), allows this finite resource to be “recharged” and even increased. Most “fascinating” are the very things we instinctively reach for when looking to relax – clouds moving across the sky, the sound of wind in the trees, water moving along a stream or up a beach. These natural land and sound-scapes are naturally restorative to both the attention systems and stress coping mechanisms, because our brains are wired to need them. fMRI studies have recently offered strong evidence in support of a neuro-energetic model that explains a mechanism behind ART.
And it’s not just anxiety and attention disorders that have increased as kids time outdoors has declined. Long term trends now track a several decade rise in rates of childhood obesity, asthma, allergies, and even Rickets (a disease caused by lack of calcium in the diet, or a lack of vitamin D, manufactured by the body when it’s exposed to sunlight). While the causes of these maladies are complex and varied, there is a broad consensus that a prime non-medical intervention, one whose side effects are well known and actively sought after, is time outdoors. Take obesity, for instance. Brought on by a combination of diet and lifestyle, obesity rates are found to be lower in kids who spend more time outdoors. Why? When kids are in green spaces, they run around. They run around a lot! The positive impact of time spent outdoors, in natural spaces, is very real on a broad range of measures. Simply put, being in natural settings is “good for what ails you”.
What’s even more intriguing is the notion that time in nature, like many things, has a dose effect. A little bit is good, but more is better. Williams, in her book, “The Nature Fix”, describes a range of doses and the impacts that they have, from 5 minute breaks looking out a window at trees, to a short walk in the woods or by a river, to a day hike, to a week-long wilderness trip. All these “doses” of nature are good, but the longer the dose, the greater the benefit. We also need to consider that not only is time in nature beneficial, but so is time away from screens and the stresses of the world. Screen time, whether for work, school, or “leisure” is widely recognized as a cognitive stressor (these experiences are what ART would term hard fascination, activities that demand focus and drain attentional energies.) A significant body of research has emerged documenting serious developmental concerns for kids who have excessive access to screens, video games, and social media platforms. What is really troubling is the attention capturing, almost addictive quality of these devices, games and apps.
Because it isn’t just the time spent on a game or social-media app that is of concern. While those activities may have some serious, detrimental side-effects that are still being uncovered, it is very clear what kids AREN’T getting when they spend excessive amounts of time on a device. When these tech-based activities displace beneficial activities like time in nature, they deprive kids of all those benefits. This sets up a double whammy, and it isn’t just kids (and the adults they become) who suffer.
A final point on the kid–nature relationship. As discussed in a previous blog, the relationship many modern kids have with the natural world is somewhat strained. Many kids are totally unfamiliar with wild spaces, with nature’s chaotic charms. They are scared of critters and bugs, so much so that a loon’s nighttime calls seem terrifying, or a caterpillar revolting. This is not just a problem for the individual, who may never fully experience the joys of being outdoors, but this is a problem for all of us, and our kids and their kids. If we raise a generation of young people who are disconnected from the natural world, who can’t get past unreasonable doubts or fears to a place where they can relax and appreciate what is out there, we will have raised a generation of kids who don’t love nature. And you won’t protect what you don’t love. Our natural spaces, our endangered species (and they’re all pretty much endangered at this point) are going to need people to fight for them and continue to fight for them. If we don’t instill a love of nature now, today’s kids may not fight as hard as they will need to when they are the adults in charge. And that, would be a real tragedy.
One of 4 goats we have at camp, along with all of our other fury friends!
As always, we have to wonder how camp fits into this picture. Simply put, camp is close to nature. Maine Teen Camp, surrounded on 3 sides by bodies of water, shaded by towering trees and filled with growing, flowering plants, gardens, and open spaces, is as much an outdoor living space as an indoor one. While we take an organic approach to pest control (tick traps, a small flock of chickens, keeping grasses and weeds trimmed and mowed), we carefully manage our relationship with our resident critters. A few snakes around camp keep chipmunks and squirrels in check, as do the resident barred owls. The lake water is monitored for cleanliness and algal growths, not just because we want campers to be swimming in the cleanest waters in New England, but because the lake is home to a family of loons, countless turtles, and many species of fish that Bald Eagles come to feed on.
Campers get to experience many of the “therapeutic” benefits of being amongst nature just by going about their daily schedule. Guitar lessons taken outdoors, fitness classes on a beach, tennis with a view to the western sky over forested hills and pristine lakes. With camp being device free, they are free from the distractions that might otherwise prevent them from appreciating, even subconsciously, these natural aspects.
Part of our adventure course which consists of multiple elements and a zip line.
And then there is the dose effect. Kids and teens are often able to get outdoors and into nature during the summer. But unless it is intentionally designed, they are rarely exposed to nature for multiple hours per day, for weeks at a time. Even more importantly, they don’t get their new calibration thrown off by a daily dose of smartphones. Some things need time to develop, time to breathe. Camp does this. We’ve always known camp is good for kids, but this dosage effect of time spent in nature is proof that actually, as the American Camp Association puts it ”camp does kids a world of good”. A final note, a quote directly from Williams, who summed up what she knows about the benefits of nature, but who could well have been talking about Maine Teen Camp - “Go outside, often, sometimes in wild places. Bring friends, or not. Breathe.”
I used several great sources for this post. I recommend all of them.
You can find an article I wrote along these lines, in the August 2019 edition of Camping Magazine – “https://www.acacamps.org/resource-library/camping-magazine/maybe-not-inevitable-case-technology-free-summer-camp”
“Last Child in the Woods” – Richard Louv
“The Nature Fix” – Florence Williams
“Glow Kids: How Screen Addiction is Hijacking our Kids” – Nicholas Kardaras
Children’s Nature Deficit: What We Know – and Don’t Know by Cheryl Charles Ph. D and Richard Louv
Matt, from New South Wales, Australia, is a PhD candidate in Public Policy & Educational Leadership at USM, with a research interest in the educational benefits of outdoor experience, serves as a board member of Maine Summer Camps (www.mainecamps.org), and is serving a three-year term on the Falmouth School Board. He has also served on the Education Investment Committee at the United Way of Greater Portland.