It’s possible that never before in history have so many been distracted by so much. From the hundreds of channels on cable and satellite TV to the profusion of iPods, Blackberries, mobile phones, and video games, to the black hole of bits and bytes that is the Internet, the information age has something to attract anyone’s attention.
Some experts say this is a good thing. Video games, they argue, are making our kids smarter and quicker thinkers. Others insist that our preoccupation with electronic data sources comes at a cost, including youngsters who can't identify a robin in their own backyard or explain that frogs start out as tadpoles.
These critics say that we’ve lost touch with the natural world and that many of our kids, who spend their days surfing the net, rather than combing through the woods, suffer from “nature deficit disorder,” a term coined by author Richard Louv in the book “Last Child in the Woods."
Nature projects and learning
The staff at the Netherlands Flower Bulb Information Center (NFBIC), in Danby, Vt., were inspired by “Last Child in the Woods” and now sponsor a website for educators called the Bulb Project.
The interactive website gives educators, youth group leaders, and home schoolers a forum for the exchange of ideas and a growing library of learning activities that use flower bulbs to connect young people and nature.
“My own boys were city kids before we moved from Brooklyn to Vermont two years ago,” says master gardener Sally Ferguson, NFBIC director. “This summer they ventured out into the garden to help me build rock walls. The garter snakes were more nature than they bargained for!
"But they loved the work of designing and building the walls," she adds. "It was their project, complete with problem-solving and decisionmaking. They got in touch with nature in a very personal way, and created something we’re all proud of.”
For family projects, she suggests that parents start with a family meeting where everyone in the family has a say about what their planting or building project should be. Walk around the yard, garden, patio, or entry and discuss what might look nice where.
Garden catalogs (both paper and online) are great resources, offering pictures of what trees, flowers, and bushes will eventually look like. Include the idea of some kid-friendly area such as a bean-climbing tee pee, a real teepee, or even a treehouse.
If there are grandparents nearby, invite them to join in the projects. Kids and grandparents will not only enjoy spending time together, the kids will be likely to become that much more involved as they show off for grandma or granddad.
“Just remember, this is about empowering kids, not about winning design awards. Being told what to do is work, not fun,” says Ms. Ferguson.
The Internet can lead the call to nature
The Internet is a terrific resource for all kinds of gardening information. Sites such as the Backyard Gardener, the gardening section of About.com, and the National Gardening Association have lots of interesting basic gardening information.
NFBIC has a website with plenty of flower bulb information, plus a new site that offers short, simple how-to videos on planting flower bulbs.Assigning the young people, masters of the virtual world, to track things down on the Web can help keep their interest.
A visit to a local garden retailer, or the gardening section of a mass-market retailer offers a tactile, hands-on experience where bulbs, trees, and shrubs can be touched and smelled.
“Buy some hyacinth bulbs,” suggests Ferguson. “Cut one open and you can clearly see the fully-formed baby flower inside just waiting to emerge next spring.”
For the smallest children, digging in the dirt is most of the fun. Older youngsters like to be part of the decision-making process, and when they make genuine decisions, they are much more likely to stay interested, too.
"Most people, including youth, get excited about gardening when they get to 'direct traffic' a bit more, so to speak," says Marcia Eames-Sheavly, an expert in horticultural education who serves as educational coordinator for www.thebulbproject.org.
"Young people who are encouraged to take ownership of a project are more involved, they learn more and retain more -- and they're more likely to want to repeat the experience," she says.
Outdoor projects can be fun projects to bring the family together in the short term, but they can also be the source of long-term family memories.
A tree planted this fall can some day be proudly pointed out to the next generation. The same is true of stands of daffodils that will naturalize and multiply over the years.
These fall weekends can become an annual event that enriches the family experience, adds value to your property, and gives pleasure for years to come.
While a weekend of fall planting might not be entirely the prescription that author Louv endorses, it can be a transitional step.
In the best of all possible worlds, Mr. Louv would encourage walks through the woods and extended visits to national parks, situations where young people can get truly up front and personal with nature.
He also says that the backyard is a good place to start, suggesting that at least some of the yard be left a bit wild. Nature is found not only in the ancient forests of Yellowstone or Jasper national parks, but also under a garden stone, just outside the back door.