By Bill Schneider
When I was a kid, about all I ever did inside was sleep, eat, and torment my grade school teachers. Every other waking moment was spent outside – not just fishing, hunting, and camping, but doing all the little things I thought up myself, like catching nightcrawlers, investigating anthills, watching toads come out on a rainy night, or making my first backpack from wood scraps, wire and burlap (that was before they invented duct tape).
I never even thought about what was happening, nor did my parents. But during these critical, formative years, I was becoming an outdoor person, a conservationist, a person who’d never enjoy inside toys like TV, computers, or game stations as much as fly rods, bicycles or binoculars, still among my favorite toys.
Kids today aren’t so lucky. Most are under a societal, parental, or self-imposed form of house arrest, with access to a wild world shrunk down to the size of a computer screen. Little wonder they’ve been called the Screen Generation.
This is largely why one in three United States kids is overweight and headed toward an adulthood likely dogged by diabetes, heart disease and other health problems. And things are getting worse, says the Institute of Medicine, which blames the problem on a junk food diet, too much TV and computer use, urban and suburban environments that discourage walking, and decreased opportunities for exercise in or out of school.
But for once, there is good news out of Washington: a bill meant to reverse this dire state of affairs. Senator Jack Reed (D-RI) and Congressman John Sarbanes (D-MD) have introduced Senate and House versions of the historic No Child Left Inside Act of 2009 (S. 866 and H.R 2054). If passed, it would mark the first environmental education legislation to pass Congress in more than 25 years, and would begin to get kids back outside.
The bill (currently referred to the House Subcommittee on Early Childhood, Elementary, and Secondary Education) authorizes $500 million over five years for states to offer higher-quality environmental education and to support outdoor learning activities. Similar bills died a silent death during the Bush Administration.
Now, though, this bill might have enough political tailwind behind it to advance through the new, blue Congress. The legislation’s primary promoter is the No Child Left Inside Coalition (NCLIC), a massive combine of 1,300 conservation and education nonprofits representing over 50 million people. Adding to that support is a long list of congressional co-sponsors, 10 senators and 38 representatives.
NCLIC describes the Act as a “non-partisan effort,” but that is, regrettably, a stretch. Out of 50 sponsors, 48 are Democrat. Republicans have, in fact, already panned it as wasteful spending and a way to spread environmental propaganda through the public school system, setting up another partisan fight in Congress.
But truly, the Act is an outgrowth of a movement started by Richard Louv, author of a best-selling book, “Last Child in the Woods,” where he describes the dramatic decline in our children’s ability to connect with nature because of what he calls Nature Deficit Syndrome.
This disorder, he says, “describes the human costs of alienation from nature, among them: diminished use of the senses, attention difficulties, and higher rates of physical and emotional illnesses. The disorder can be detected in individuals, families, and communities.” Though research is still scanty, Louv argues that less nature in our children’s lives can lead to higher crime rates, depression and other urban maladies.
Louv points to still another serious likely result of Nature Deficit Disorder. The long-term impact is fewer grown-up children connected to nature and willing to work to protect it. With the problems we now face, ranging from climate change to disappearing natural resources and wildlife, the No Child Left Inside Act is an important step toward protecting our nation’s future.
“Environmental education must be a part of the formal pre-K-12 education system if we are to fully prepare students to become lifelong stewards of our natural resources and compete in a green economy,” says bill sponsor Congressman Sarbanes.
So take a moment and contact your senator or representative and urge him or her to support the bill’s passage. Yes, it’s extra tax dollars, but a $100 million per year seems like pocket change compared to the billions Congress has devoted to Wall Street bailouts.
As someone put it to me: This is not a conservationist’s issue, or a left-leaning environmentalist’s issue. This is everyone’s issue. It’s a small investment in the health of our children and our planet.
And one last thought. After you send that e-mail to Congress, shut down the computer, and go take the kids for a walk in the park. It’s good medicine!
Bill Schneider works as travel and outdoor editor for the online magazine NewWest.Net where a version of this commentary originally appeared.