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Marti (Martha) Erickson

Marti Erickson, who directs the Harris programs in the University's Center for Early Education and Development, advocates bringing children into contact with nature on a regular basis.

Putting back the wild in the child

A movement to expose more children to nature gains steam

By Deane Morrison

April 4, 2008

As cities grow and green spaces shrink, children are losing their connection to woods, meadows, and nature in general. The trend has alarmed many child development researchers, especially since the 2005 publication of Richard Louv's Last Child in the Woods: Saving Our Children From Nature Deficit Disorder. The book prompted Mary Vidas, public policy program manager at the U's Minnesota Landscape Arboretum, to organize "Nature, Children and Families: A Necessary Connection," a conference on the issue. Held today (Friday, April 4, 2008) and sponsored by the Arboretum and the Minnesota Council on Family Relations, it laid out the case for bringing nature and children back together. "It just sneaked up on us. Over the last 20 to 30 years, kids stopped going outside," says conference speaker Marti Erickson, co-chair of the U's Initiative on Children, Youth, and Families. Her own profession hasn't devoted enough research to the problem, adds Erickson, who has spent her career studying parent-child attachment. But the studies that have been done point to benefits from natural surroundings, or even views of trees or other greenery, in calming children and refreshing them mentally. For example, "A study in Canada had teachers rate the play of children in natural green outdoor play areas versus other kinds of play areas [such as barren courtyards]," says Erickson. "Those in the natural areas were rated as more cooperative and engaging in more problem-solving and creative play, but we need more rigorous studies to infer causality."

"Data on the risk of stranger abduction shows that it's no higher, and maybe lower, than in the 1970s, when kids were outside a lot. [This fear] is driven to a large extent by the media."

Another "soft" but provocative study suggested that children who have a caring adult introduce them to nature are more likely to become good stewards of nature later, she says. At the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, conference keynoter Andrea Faber Taylor and her colleagues are out to systematically test the benefits of green space on children's day-to-day functioning. In a study of public housing residents, they compared children ages 7-12 where everything was the same except for whether or not the families' units had views of trees or other greenery.

Hear, hear

Listen to a University of Minnesota Moment with Marti Erickson on the benefits to families of a "green hour."

"Girls with the greener view scored higher on measures of concentration, impulse control, and delay of gratification. Collectively, these are measures of the capacity for self-discipline," says Taylor, a child environment and behavior researcher. No such relationship was observed for boys, however; possibly, she says, because they spent more time playing outside and so were less influenced by the view from their windows. Children with ADHD also seem to benefit, if only temporarily, from the calming effects of time outside, says Taylor. Often, such children have lots of homework because they can't get any done at school. But adding green space to the mix of coping strategies would lessen the burden on parents trying to get the kids to hit the books. "If the parents could just say, 'OK, you're home. We're going to the park for 30 minutes,' the child will be better able to tackle homework," she explains. Reasons for kids' weakening connection to nature aren't hard to find. For one thing, Erickson faults a general loss of recess and physical education time in the schools. "With the focus on testing, what many of us see as a narrow approach to learning [has taken hold]," she says. "Experiential learning from getting outside and experiencing science up close and personal is declining." Interviews with parents have uncovered two other reasons. Fear, especially of stranger abductions, is number one. But Erickson urges parents to resist. "Data on the risk of stranger abduction shows that it's no higher, and maybe lower, than in the 1970s, when kids were outside a lot," she says. "[This fear] is driven to a large extent by the media. "Also, I think sometimes we magnify one risk and overlook another one. Type II diabetes, for example, is linked to lifestyle. I think we have to take a balanced look at risks and benefits and override our fears so we don't create an even greater risk for our children." Many parents also harbor a fear of nature itself, says Erickson, and today's young parents who were nature-deprived as children may be most prone to it. A second big factor parents have noticed is the seductive power of technology. Studies imply that kids can spend more than 40 hours a week in front of some sort of screen, says Erickson; and not only that, but new technologies often visit nature along with the children. "People [who work] in parks and nature centers are very uncomfortable when kids come in with instant messaging, iPods, headphones, and so on and look for interactive technology [in nature centers]," she says. Parents and teachers can do a lot to correct the problem, however. Erickson cites school-sponsored, kid-tended vegetable gardens as one measure and praises Dodge Nature Preschool in West St. Paul as "a beautiful example of getting children hooked on nature early." She also stresses that parents need not worry that any of this will add more bricks to their load. "Greening time" is a great de-stressor for people of all ages, she notes. Take the day last December when she was overloaded with work but still took her young granddaughter out for a romp in the new-fallen snow. It gave Erickson such a surge of energy that she got far more work done that night than she had expected. "For a little investment, you can get a lot of return," she observes.