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Generation 'In' gets a new nudge: Go out and play

By Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor / October 11, 2006



POMFRET CENTER, CONN.

The great outdoors doesn't have the same pull it once did.

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Attendance at national parks has slipped around 25 percent since 1987. The decline is even more precipitous at some state parks. Here at Connecticut's Mashamoquet Brook State Park, attendance on peak days has fallen by roughly half during the same period, says the park supervisor.

The main culprit, experts suspect, is a generational shift.

Today's youngsters and their parents are more wired and more scheduled than earlier Americans, leaving less unstructured time to spend outdoors. For the kids, that can mean missing out on childhood bonds to nature.

Alarmed, conservationists and government officials are looking for ways to reverse the trend. Connecticut has already started, with a new campaign this year called "No Child Left Inside." The idea: bring families back to parks, families like the Verdones.

"I was always in the woods. As soon as my bed was made, I was out the door," says Brenda Verdone, strolling with her family through Mashamoquet Brook. Pointing at her daughter, Deanna, who is skipping ahead after their white husky, "I want her to do this stuff. Being inside isn't good for you."

Connecticut has begun advertising and promoting the outdoors. Borrowing a concept from reality TV, organizers invited teams of families with kids to follow clues in an adventure contest spanning eight state parks.

A key to the adventure program was getting entire families to participate. Each team had to have at least one adult and at least one child. Families could share online photos and blogs of their trips. Some 400 families signed up, more than organizers could handle initially.

The "No Child Left Inside" idea is part of a larger national discussion among park wardens, government officials, and environmentalists about how to reverse a growing alienation from nature, particularly among youths. Those concerned cite the health of future generations, and the long-term support for conservation efforts by an indoor civilization.

"For thousands of years in human history, kids went outside and spent their childhood outdoors, in nature. In the matter of a few decades, we are seeing the disappearance of that kind of play ... and that has enormous implications," says Richard Louv, author of the recent book "Last Child in the Woods."

Studies of children, he notes, show that exposure to nature boosts attention spans, reduces stress, and could be an antidote to the rising problem of childhood obesity.

But the changing landscape of America – from grass and asphalt-only neighborhoods to highly structured schedules for kids – means this interaction with nature is no longer a given. Mr. Louv says parental fear of strangers also plays a role: A 1991 study found that the radius around the home that parents allowed 9-year-olds to wander had shrunk to one-ninth of what it had been in 1970.

Enrollment in the Boy Scouts fell 14 percent between 1999 and 2005. The Girl Scouts, meanwhile, are looking to augment their outdoor programs with indoor concerns like cyber-bullying.

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