Children Detach from Natural World As They Explore the Virtual One

Peter Fimrite, San Francisco Chronicle, October 22, 2007

Yosemite may be nice and all, but Tommy Nguyen of San Francisco would much prefer spending his day in front of a new video game or strolling around the mall with his buddies.

What, after all, is a 15-year-old supposed to do in what John Muir called “the grandest of all special temples of nature” without cell phone service?

“I’d rather be at the mall because you can enjoy yourself walking around looking at stuff as opposed to the woods,” Nguyen said from the comfort of the Westfield San Francisco Centre mall.

In Yosemite and other parks, he said, furrowing his brow to emphasize the absurdly lopsided comparison, “the only thing you look at is the trees, grass and sky.”

The notion of going on a hike, camping, fishing or backpacking is foreign to a growing number of young people in cities and suburbs around the nation, according to several polls and studies.

State and national parks, it seems, are good places for old folks to go, but the consensus among the younger set is that hiking boots aren’t cool. Besides, images of nature can be downloaded these days.

It isn’t just national forests and wilderness areas that young people are avoiding, according to the experts. Kids these days aren’t digging holes, building tree houses, catching frogs or lizards, frolicking by the creek or even throwing dirt clods.

“Nature is increasingly an abstraction you watch on a nature channel,” said Richard Louv, the author of the book “Last Child in the Woods,” an account of how children are slowly disconnecting from the natural world. “That abstract relationship with nature is replacing the kinship with nature that America grew up with.”

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“Anywhere, even in Colorado, the standard answer you get when you ask a kid the last time he was in the mountains is ‘I’ve never been to the mountains,’ ” Louv said. “And this is in a place where they can see the mountains outside their windows.”

The nature gap is just as big a problem in California, where there are more state and national parks than anywhere else in the country. A recent poll of 333 parents by the Public Policy Institute of California found that 30 percent of teenagers did not participate in any outdoor nature activity at all this past summer. Another 17 percent engaged only once in an outdoor activity like camping, hiking or backpacking.

The numbers coincide with national polls indicating that children and teenagers play outdoors less than young people did in the past. Between 1997 and 2003, the proportion of children ages 9 to 12 who spent time hiking, walking, fishing, playing on the beach or gardening declined 50 percent, according to a University of Maryland study.

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The lack of outdoor activity is more pronounced in California’s minority and lower-income communities. Latino parents, for example, were twice as likely as white parents to say their child never participated in an outdoor nature activity and three times more likely to say their child did not go to a park, playground or beach this past summer, according to the Public Policy Institute poll.

Several African American, Asian and Latino students from various San Francisco high schools admitted they rarely, if ever, go to the neighborhood park, let alone visit a national or state park.

“We are city kids, so we don’t get to experience the outdoors,” said Ronnisha Johnson, a 17-year-old senior at Philip Burton High School. “I don’t like bugs, and most of my friends don’t like wild animals. And they don’t teach you about the wilderness in school. Kids don’t think of it as a park. They just think of it as a big open space where there is nothing to do.”

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Louv does not believe technology is the only reason for the lack of exposure to the outdoors. He said sensationalistic reporting of rare occurrences is a big reason why parents are reluctant to let their children out of the house, let alone wander through the woods or down by the creek.

“Every time CNN or Fox makes a huge story about a lost Boy Scout or a bear attack, it feeds the growing fear that parents and kids have of strangers and of nature itself,” Louv said. “The actual number of stranger abductions has actually been level or falling for 20 years, but you would never know it from the media. When they get done telling about the crime, they tell about the trial. And when it’s a slow news day, they bring up JonBenet Ramsey again.”

Entrance fees at state and national parks also serve as barriers, Louv said. In the inner city, lack of maintenance and violence in the parks deter visitation. In the suburbs, neighborhood regulations discourage young people from using open space, Louv said.

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