No Child Inside by Don Meredith © 2007
(first published in the August 2007 Alberta Outdoorsmen)
First Place, Brock McRitchie
Memorial Writing Award
Second Place, Magazine Column
Outdoor Writers of Canada
2008 National Communications Awards
When I was a boy living in a suburb of Los Angeles, my friends and I would often take a trip on our bicycles to a local flood-control reservoir. The reservoir rarely had any significant water in it, just a small, meandering, tree-lined creek that ran intermittently. However, there usually were small ponds and pools where we could catch crawdads (crayfish), frogs and salamanders. Sometimes I would bring these animals home, and I had the good fortune to have parents who allowed me to keep them for a while, as long as I looked after them. This undoubtedly helped kindle my interest in biology and the outdoors, and my parents encouraged my interest by making sure I had access to the library and books that could answer my numerous questions.
Several years ago I returned to my old neighborhood to show the family where I came from. Of course, there were a lot of changes in the intervening years, the most significant for me being the reservoir. Instead of that meandering stream bed with its inviting shrubs and trees, there was a concrete, only slightly curved square-edged gutter, barricaded by a barbed-wire-topped cyclone fence to keep people out. The concrete reservoir looked no different from the nearby concrete freeways. Indeed, as I surveyed the area around that reservoir, the only green I could see were the tops of palm trees lining a couple of nearby boulevards. As Joni Mitchell said in Big Yellow Taxi, "They paved paradise and put up a parking lot," only this parking lot was for flood water that could now move faster because there were no natural banks and vegetation to absorb and slow it down. There was also no natural "paradise" where the children in nearby neighborhoods could experience nature first-hand, and maybe ask a few questions about life and our connections with the land.
These memories were triggered recently when I read an article in the online Washington Post about a new program in the United States, "Leave No Child Indoors", funded by the Walt Disney Co., Sesame Workshop, DuPont, the Conservation Fund and others, to finance a campaign that encourages children to go outdoors. The article cited a study at the University of Maryland which found that the proportion of children (9 to 12 years old) who participated in outdoor activities, such as hiking, fishing or gardening had dropped 50 percent (from 16 to 8 percent) from 1997 to 2003. During the same time, the study found an increase in time the same children spent watching television, playing video games and other indoor activities.
If you are like me, you are not surprised by these results. Indeed the fact that only 16 percent of 9 to 12 year olds were spending time outdoors in 1997 indicates to me that this phenomenon had been occurring long before somebody decided to study it. The bottom line is that an increasingly larger proportion of our kids are not getting outdoors and experiencing the awe and wonder of nature. These are future voters who will determine the fate of our wild areas, and yes hunting, fishing and trapping.
It is not hard to understand how we as a society got to this condition. First, we have made it increasingly difficult to access natural areas in our cities and towns by paving these areas over or warning our kids about the dangers that may lurk there. Second, we have developed many inside activities that compete with the outdoors for children's attention, like TV, computers, video games and iPods®, not to mention cell phones that allow people to keep in constant contact with each other without having to leave the house. Third, we have scared both children and parents with news media reports about abductions and shootings from around the globe, despite statistics that show these rare events are locally decreasing in number, especially in relation to our ever increasing population.
Besides missing the awe and wonder of nature, increasingly larger proportions of these kids are becoming obese and developing psychological problems. Studies have shown that taking kids to a natural area allows them to get outside themselves and their problems for a while and perhaps put a new perspective on their lives. A study in California showed that children taught in outdoor programs improved their proficiency in math, science, social studies and arts. In short, these kids became more motivated to learn. Another study at the University of Illinois demonstrated that children with attention-deficit-disorder, or hyperactivity, have their symptoms reduced significantly when they spend time in natural areas.
Now as outdoor people, we do not need studies to tell us the outdoors is good for us; and we make sure our own children get outside regularly and accompany us on camping, fishing and hunting trips. However, we also know that as a group anglers and hunters are getting older and fewer in number. What are we doing to get more children and their parents to enjoy the outdoors?
In the States, along with the Leave No Child Indoors program, government agencies and environmental organizations, such as the U.S. Forest Service, U.S. National Park Service, the Sierra Club, the Audubon Society, and the National Wildlife Federation, are taking action with several programs to get "more kids in the woods". If there are similar national programs in Canada, they are hard to find, at least on the Internet. Maybe Canada doesn't need such a program, but I doubt it. We are a much more urban population than in the States and that is reflected in our much lower participation rate in fishing and hunting activities. We also seem to have our share of problems with kids not relating to wild places.
Another concern may be that many of these outdoor programs for children are being spearheaded by environmental organizations or government agencies that may not place hunting and fishing high on the priority list of activities to get kids outdoors. Indeed some of these organizations may actively lobby against such activities. Shouldn't hunters, anglers and trappers be involved?
We used to be. About 20 years ago the Alberta Conservation and Hunter Education Course was part of outdoor programs in many schools across the province. Now because of budget cuts in schools and governments and an increasingly crowded curriculum, it's hard to find an outdoor program in schools, let alone one that presents hunting, fishing and trapping as viable outdoor options. If a "Leave No Child Indoors" type of program were to be implemented in schools, would anglers and hunters be involved?
Perhaps all the concern about childhood obesity and the mental health of today's youth is an opportunity for anglers and hunters to retake the high ground. Perhaps organizations like Hunting for Tomorrow or the Alberta Fish and Game Association should take the initiative and use the recent studies that demonstrate the importance of outdoor activities to the physical and mental health of our youth to get the outdoors back in our schools. Perhaps it is time for anglers and hunters to once again be the leaders in demonstrating the awe and wonder of nature to our youth.
© Don H. Meredith 2007 Any reproduction of this work, in whole or part, in any media is prohibited unless expressly granted by the author. For more information, see the copyright notice.