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

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

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.

These trends prompted academics and officials – including US Interior Secretary Dirk Kempthorne – to gather last month in West Virginia for a first-of-its-kind conference entitled "Children and Nature." Offering some hard data were the authors of a study that found a high correlation between the drop in national park visits and the increased time spent with TV, home movies, video games, and the Internet. While oil price rises also correlated to a lesser degree, the study found, many other factors did not, including vacation time and federal funding.

"We may be seeing evidence of a fundamental shift away from people's appreciation of nature ... to 'videophilia,' which we here define as 'the new human tendency to focus on sedentary activities involving electronic media,' " reads the study, funded by the Nature Conservancy and published earlier this year in the Journal of Environmental Management.

Patricia Zaradic, one of the study's authors, has discarded her TV and urges other parents to go outdoors with their children. "The kids are going to do what you do," she says. "If you are spending the majority of your time glued to some sort of boob tube, how can you tell them to go outside and play?"

Too often, argues Louv, children who don't have such experiences assume there isn't anything to do outside.

"Environmentalists also have a role to play in this because there has been this look-but-don't-touch ethic that has sometimes been appropriate, but sometimes not," he says.

The hunting community may offer lessons about engaging children outdoors, says Kyle Scanlon, editor of the fish and game magazine Outdoors. His home state of Vermont, like others, offers mentoring programs to teach kids gun safety and sets aside youth-only weekends during hunting season.

The proliferation of outdoor chic – from high-end REI or EMS camping gear to glossy magazines like Outside – suggests an ongoing connection with the outdoors.

"There are still plenty of people interested in outdoor activity, but there aren't as many people interested in extended trips," says Shannon Stowell, president of the Adventure Travel Trade Association. "They are more inclined to do day trips and be back somewhere comfortable for the night. And the gear sales reflect that as well." Day packs are in, overnight packs are out.

Ms. Verdone's efforts to reconnect her family with nature – including bike rides and hikes around southern New England – seem to be paying off.

On this day's walk with her parents, Deanna says she discovered "stuff you don't see every day." With wavy hand motions, she describes a tree she found with rippled bark: "It was really weird." She also saw a tree charred by lightning, as well as playful wildlife. "There was a squirrel jumping tree to tree and chucking stuff at us," she says.

As for other ways to get the next generation into the woods, her mother has a novel idea: "You know what they should do is tell guys [that hiking] is a cheap date. And the girls will think it's romantic."

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