Friday, December 28, 2012

Kids, Nature and Mental Health

We’re steadily becoming a society with attention problems, and the issue is especially prevalent in kids.  Here are a few facts to chew on:

In other words, attention disorders affect a large and growing number of children, and this problem costs us a lot of money and makes life harder for the kids we love.  And attention disorders aren’t the only mental health issues affecting our children.  The U.S. Surgeon General estimates that as many as 1 in 10 American children and adolescents a year have “significant functional impairment” as a result of a mental health disorder.  

I realize there is no simple solution to this large and complex problem—but a growing body of scientific research suggests that helping our children spend less time using electronic media and more time outside connecting with nature could be part of a solution.  Here are just a few examples:
  • According to research conducted at Children’s Hospital in Seattle, each hour of television watched per day by preschoolers increases by 10% the likelihood they will develop concentration problems and other ADHD symptoms by age 7.
  • Numerous studies demonstrate that experiences in nature can enhance cognitive functioning, help combat the symptoms of ADHD, reduce depression, decrease anxiety, relieve stress, increase self-esteem, promote positive behavior changes, and provide several other health benefits.
  • Brain structures respond differently to stress in people raised or living in rural environments than they do in people raised or living in city environments.  Living and growing up in an urban environment affects social stress processing in the brain and can be an environmental risk factor for mental illness. 

Unfortunately, current trends are taking us in the wrong direction.  Kids today spend more time than ever interacting with electronic media and almost no time interacting with nature.  A 2006 study by the Kaiser Family Foundation found that nearly 1/3 of children between the ages of 6 months and 6 years live in households where television is on most or all of the time.  Children between the ages of 8 and 18 spend approximately 6.5 hours plugged in electronically, and about 1/4 of the time they use more than one form of electronic media simultaneously.  Meanwhile, the amount of discretionary time children have in a typical week has declined approximately 9 hours over a 25-year period, and children are spending far less time in nature. 

And it’s not their fault.  Today’s young people have fewer opportunities for active, unstructured, outdoor play.  In 1900 40% of the US population lived on farms, but that number dwindled to less than 2% by 1990.  Now, most children live in urban and suburban communities with limited access to open spaces.  Today, more than 57 million Americans live in homes ruled by homeowners associations, which often have rules prohibiting kids from playing outside the way their parents and grandparents did—making forts, climbing trees, damming trickles of water.  City ordinances and park rules also frequently restrict opportunities for unrestricted outdoor play.  For example, there are signs in several of the parks in my city that state tree climbing is a violation.

As our population grows, open spaces are shrinking rapidly.  This often results in overuse of the remaining undeveloped lands, and new rules are then established to protect the bits of nature that are left—bits of nature that are now to be seen, not touched.  In many urban and suburban areas, there is now little room or opportunity for free, unorganized, creative outdoor play.  And that’s sad.

When I was a kid, nature was my refuge.  Not only did the mountain forests near my home provide hours of adventure, spark my imagination, and introduce me to many of life’s great mysteries—they also provided a place where I could process hard emotions, connect to forces greater than myself, and find true peace and meaning.  Kids need moments of space, freedom and discovery.  They need the fodder for all their senses that trees, streams, and other unmanicured patches of earth provide.  These places impart peaceful and inspirational moments that stay with our children forever—giving them the gifts of connectedness, inspiration and calm feelings that can steady them against the hard knocks of life.

Researchers describe two types of attention: directed attention and involuntary attention.  Directed attention is hard work—think final exams, doing your taxes, completing a crucial project for your boss.  Too much directed attention fatigues us, leaving us irritated, distractible and more impulsive.  On the other hand, involuntary attention grips us when we’re fascinated by something.  It’s automatic and restorative.  It gives us a break from the rigors of directed attention, and it often occurs when we’re in nature. 

Think of our children.  On an average day, how much time do we put them in situations that require directed attention?  School, homework, music lessons, even sports practices.  In comparison, how much time and freedom do we give them for involuntary attention (which does not including numbing their brains in front of the television or a game station)?  I’m not saying that directed attention is bad for our kids.  They need to develop the ability to concentrate on difficult subjects in order to succeed in life.  However, research suggests that our children also need more unstructured time outdoors where they can become fascinated by the world they live in.      

In the words of Stephen Kellert, Ph.D., “Play in nature, particularly during the critical period of middle childhood, appears to be an especially important time for developing the capacities for creativity, problem solving, and emotional and intellectual development.”  We should treat time for unstructured, outdoor play as an essential ingredient for our children’s lifelong well-being.

As Richard Louv explains in his fantastic book Last Child in the Woods, “If it’s true that nature therapy reduces the symptoms of ADHD, then the converse may also be true: ADHD may be a set of symptoms aggravated by lack of exposure to nature.  By this line of thinking, many children may benefit from medications, but the real disorder is less in the child than it is in the imposed, artificial environment.  Viewed from this angle, the society that has disengaged the child from nature is most certainly disordered, if well-meaning.” 

We can help, and we can have fun and enhance our own mental health doing it.  So grab the kids you love and take them outside.  Kick off your shoes and make time to watch a sunset.  Let your children run and climb and swim.  Let them feel the freedom, mystery, and inspiration of running wild on this beautiful planet.  Help them get mud on their feet!

To find a place for active, unstructured, outdoor play near your home, check out this cool tool from Discover the Forest. 

Friday, December 21, 2012

Kids and Nature—The Connection Matters

We humans have become an unprecedented force on the planet. 

It took nearly all of human history—hundreds of thousands of years since Homo sapiens first strolled onto the savannas of Africa—for the human population to reach one billion early in the 19th century.  After that, it took a mere two centuries for our numbers to skyrocket past seven billion.

Seven billion!  And growing fast! 

It takes a lot of land, water and other resources to keep this growing mass of humanity alive.  And we’re dramatically changing the biological, chemical and physical characteristics of the world to meet our lifestyle expectations.

Each year we destroy swaths of forest totaling the size of Panama.  Estimates project that 90% of Earth’s original forests could be lost by 2030.

Since the 1600s, we have destroyed more than half of the historic wetlands in the United States.

The Pacific Ocean now contains 3.5 million tons of trash—floating garbage swirling in an area the size of Europe.

Inside the tissue of our bodies, we carry a mixture of metals, pesticides, solvents, fire retardants, waterproofing agents and by-products of fuel combustion.

Add it all up—some scientists estimate that we’re driving 150 to 200 species to extinction every day!  Extinction!  We’re talking about living miracles that took millennia to evolve and will never be seen again.  Never.

That’s one heck of a footprint.

And that’s why now—more than ever—we need to help our kids connect to and understand the natural world.  Earth’s biosphere is their home.  They rely on its plants, animals, air, water and soil far more than we teach them.  Far more than we even admit or understand.

Our children’s future depends on us helping them develop a deep appreciation for the natural world, humanity’s place in it, the myriad connections between the oceans, forests, air, soil and countless living creatures.  But we’re not doing enough to help them understand and connect with wild places.  In the words of David Suzuki, “We’re in a giant car heading towards a brick wall and everyone’s arguing over where they’re going to sit.”

Stop arguing.  Jump out of the car.  Slamming into that wall is going to hurt no matter where you sit.  Turn off the engine and start sharing nature with your children.

But where do we start?  Where do we take them to learn?

Outside.  Let them climb that tree.  Encourage them to swim in that creek.  Smile when they pick up that slimy frog.  Allow them to get dirty.  Sleep with them beneath the stars.

In the words of Richard Louv, “Passion does not arrive on a videotape or on a CD; passion is personal.  Passion is lifted from the earth itself by the muddy hands of the young; it travels along grass-stained sleeves to the heart.  If we are going to save environmentalism and the environment, we must also save an endangered indicator species: the child in nature.”

That’s where the learning starts.  That’s how their innate curiosity will be fostered into a deep connection and appreciation.  The quality of their future depends on it.

So get outside.  Take the kids you love.  Share with them the joys of getting mud on your feet!

Coming soon:  numerous scientific studies demonstrate a positive connection between nature experiences and mental health in children.

Thursday, December 20, 2012

Midweek Meditation

Photo by Jon Sullivan

may my heart always be open to little
birds who are the secrets of living
whatever they sing is better than to know
and if men should not hear them men are old

e.e. cummings

Monday, December 10, 2012

The Colorado Trail: Reflections on a 500-mile Adventure (Part 4)

Yesterday Sheriff Bill Fairchild gave us a ride back to the trailhead.  He talked and laughed the whole way, and I found myself thinking he’d mastered the right kind of approach to life.

Today, we journeyed twelve miles over Snow Mesa at 12,400 feet, passing through a herd of sheep grazing in an alpine meadow.  Descending from the mesa we spotted a coyote and watched him run across the skree slope.  Now we’re camped in a beautiful meadow, and we’ve seen several deer this afternoon.

Today may have been my favorite hike of our entire journey.  We spent a leisurely morning goofing around then started hiking at 8:30—and it was a spectacular walk.  So many wildflowers covered the high meadows it was as if the world had gone all Jackson Pollock, splattering color across the land—daisies, Indian paintbrush, sunflowers, blue bells, columbine, and so many more.  And the mountains towered around us like something out of a fantasy novel, rugged gray and red peaks everywhere we looked.

We lingered at the top of Rolling Mountain Pass for a long snack, and now we’re camped beside a playful series of small waterfalls.  The stone beneath the water is chalky white, and the water is clear.  After dinner we took a short walk up a skree slope and watched the pikas.  Now I’m lying in bed, listening to the soft chanting of the waterfalls.

Today was relaxing—only walked 8 miles, all of it above timberline with spectacular mountain views.  We stopped early to camp at Taylor Lake, which sits at treeline in a glacial cirque, and we swam then let our skin dry in the sun.  At dusk, we ate dinner beside the water, and we were serenaded by a coyote in the distance.  We saw several deer, and the sunset was perfect.

It is our last night on the Colorado Trail.  It’s hard to believe that our six week journey is almost over.  Looking back it seems to have flown by, leaving images and deep feelings—the joy of laughter, an endless sea of mountain peaks, the simplicity and perfect slowness of walking.  Some images are steep and rugged.  Some are dry and thirsty.  Others are wet and muddy and smell like rain. 

Life has slowed down for me, closer now to the pace of the moon as it eases across the sky.  My days have been filled with rhythms of water, whispers of wind, songs of birds, long silences… and I will miss those things.  I’ll miss traveling with Richard, the carefree and habitual friendship we’ve deepened, the peace and simplicity we’ve shared.

Sitting in camp this evening, I am both excited and sad.  Another year in Boulder is waiting for me, and I’m excited to once again immerse myself in the energy of that town—the playfulness of the people, the stimulation of campus, the rollicking nights.  But I’ll miss this. 

The evening birds are singing, and the aspens are whispering.  I’ll take it as a farewell serenade and put these memories in my traveling bag for safe keeping.

Further Reading:  If you are interested in learning more about the Colorado Trail, check out these books:

Read the whole series:  Part 1  -  Part 2  -  Part 3  -  Part 4

J.S. Kapchinske is the author of Coyote Summer.

Wednesday, December 5, 2012

The Colorado Trail: Reflections on a 500-mile Adventure (Part 3)

Today we began our ascent to Hope Pass, and we’re now camped in a glacial cirque.  The high meadow is scattered with wildflowers, and our tent is near a cold, clear pond.  We found a great bathing hole, got out the Dr. Bronners and jumped in for a chilly, hoot-hollering scrub.  It was overdue.

A short time ago an inquisitive marmot ventured into our camp.  He rummaged around outside our tent, playing with the zippers and trying to peek inside.  Then he started to approach us.  Several times he came within five feet then appeared nervous and walked in circles.  Eventually he would get spooked and run away, only to come back a few minutes later and do it all over again.

The sun is setting now, alpenglow lingering on the snowy peaks.  The air is calm, everything peaceful.

We’re camped near a large beaver pond.  It rained this afternoon, so we put on our rain jackets and went fishing.  But there are so many trout in the pond that we seemed to catch something with every cast.  We had five fish in no time, and we fried them with breadcrumbs for dinner.

We spotted the beaver while cleaning our fish.  He swam really close to us and repeatedly swatted the water with his tail.  I think he was trying to scare us away.

Yesterday we left our camp at Angel of Shavano and climbed through a forest dominated by lodgepole pine.  The air felt cool and fresh, and wildflowers were everywhere.  We ate lunch on the Continental Divide then crossed onto the western slope again, spending the night in an old log shelter on the edge of an alpine meadow.

Today we hiked 17 miles and ran short on water.  By the time we reached Seven Tank Creek (named for an old railroad water stop), I was parched and feeling clumsy.  We filtered two bottles of water and sat by the creek sipping them until we felt alive again.

After dinner I sewed several patches on my shorts…  I hope they last until Durango.

It started raining in the early morning and continued until late afternoon.  We spent the day hiking up Cochetopa Creek into the La Garita Wilderness Area.  Cochetopa is a Ute word meaning buffalo crossing.  Unfortunately, both the buffalo and the Ute are now gone from these mountains.

It was a spectacular hike, eventually leading us above timberline, along a ridge below San Louis Peak.  Mist hung in the air like an army of forgotten spirits, and everything felt mystical.

About 6:00 we reached the dirt road to Creede and started for town to pick up our resupply package of food.  Before long we stumbled across a man on horseback, wearing chaps, boots and a worn, brown Stetson.  He introduced himself as Sheriff Bill Fairchild.  His face was hidden by a bushy red beard, and he cussed a lot, laughed a lot, and talked about women a lot.  He’d blown a tire on his horse trailer after a search and rescue effort, so Richard and I helped him lead his horses to an aspen grove, tied them, and then helped him jack up the trailer and change his tire.

A short while later, his partner Sheriff Phil Leggit turned up and offered us a ride into town.  On our way down the bumpy dirt road Sheriff Leggit authorized us to “sleep anywhere you damn well please in town.”  Then he added, “If you wake in the night and need to piss, then you boys can piss all over the damn place.” 

We’re camped behind a saloon called the Mucker’s Bucket, and a rangy sheepdog has settled in with us.  I like Creede.

Up next:  Coyote, deer and the end of a great adventure.

Read the whole series:  Part 1  -  Part 2  -  Part 3  -  Part 4

J.S. Kapchinske is the author of Coyote Summer.

Saturday, December 1, 2012

The Colorado Trail: Reflections on a 500-mile Adventure (Part 2)

The hike was beautiful today—passing through aspen groves and densely vegetated riparian forests.  At lunchtime we reached 10,000 feet and emerged from the forest into an alpine meadow.  We ate a leisurely lunch despite rumbling thunder and took a short nap. 

When we woke, we continued up the valley for another couple miles until we found a picturesque campsite, nestled just inside the forest fringe.  Richard set about repairing some of his gear while I soaked my feet in the icy stream.

After dinner we took a short walk in a high meadow and watched the sunset.  We have gotten some good glimpses of snow-covered peaks to the west.  We should reach them in a couple days and cross the Continental Divide.  On our way back to camp a huge moon came up over the Rampart Range, surrounded by a curtain of pink clouds. 

A gentle rain is falling on our tent now, and thunder occasionally rolls above us.  I’m tired and will have no trouble sleeping.

Yesterday was a big one—24 miles of hiking.  We came out of the Rampart Range early in the morning and crossed Kenosha Pass, arriving at the base of tall mountains around lunchtime.

The moon has been nearly full the past couple nights, and as we hiked we began dreaming of crossing the Continental Divide under the light of a full moon.  It was a steep hike to timberline, and we reached the divide around 9:30 at night.  The moon was bright over the eastern plains and Rampart Mountains, and now and again the sky lit even more as lightning danced across the face of some storm far to the east.

On the far side of the divide we caught the last pink glimpses of sunset and saw the lights of Breckenridge below.  We put on our warm clothes and lay on our backs, looking up at the sky, dreaming and talking for nearly an hour.  It was cold, beautiful, and unforgettable.

Eventually, we shouldered out packs again and staggered another five miles before reaching a river to camp beside.  Before sleeping I went to hang the bear bag.  The moon was full and high above the forest, dropping a fantastic, sleepy light into the woods.
Dawn felt early today, and we were slow to motivate.  We ate a breakfast of oatmeal and hot coco then began our final ascent of the Ten Mile Range.  When we reached timberline the scenery was spectacular—steep rocky peaks and alpine meadows with delicate wildflowers.  The wind was cold and tried hard to toss us like dead weeds.

Richard and I were both chipper this morning and spent the first hour of our day conversing as if we were two old ladies from upstate New York.  We named our alter egos Georgie and Marge, and I image they will stay with us for the rest of the trip.

At midmorning we reached 12,000 feet and Searle Pass, where we stopped for water and soaked in the expansive view of cathedral peaks.  We continued through the alpine tundra to Kokomo Pass, and as we came over the ridge we spotted a huge golden eagle taking flight and soaring above the mountains.

We are now camped beneath Kokomo Pass—undoubtedly our most spectacular campsite to date.  We spent the afternoon reading and enjoying the views.  Sunset was perfection.

Up next:  A friendly marmot, an angry beaver, and a bearded cowboy... 
Until then, go get some mud on your feet!  And check out this really cool organization called the Children and Nature Network.  I'm working on a new series focused on the benefits our children experience when we help them connect with wild places... coming soon.

Read the whole series:  Part 1  -  Part 2  -  Part 3  -  Part 4

J.S. Kapchinske is the author of Coyote Summer.