“I’m scared!” shrieked a petite fifth-grader as she grabbed my hand. Her anxiety was palpable. She was frozen in her boots, resisting forward motion as if she were about to be pushed off a cliff.
We were in Chicago, one of the flattest places on Earth, and there were no cliffs here on the city’s south side at the Forest Preserves of Cook County’s (FPCC) Beaubien Woods. Instead there were tall grasses, a sprinkling of trees, and a small oblong lake. Nestled among a looming landfill, hectic highway, polluted river, and pungent sewage treatment plant, Beaubien Woods is a natural area gem that lies at the center of what local environmental justice leaders Hazel and Cheryl Johnson call a “toxic doughnut.” This place juxtaposes the natural beauty and the environmental degradation that are found in the Calumet region near Lake Michigan’s southern end.
As my new nature exploring companion stood looking at the path ahead, I wanted to know why this place made her anxious. In my experience it’s best to identify one’s fear. So I asked: “Well, what exactly are you afraid of?”
“Nature!” she shrilled, clenching my hand tighter. Maybe she meant insects or plants or predators, I’m not sure. Regardless, she was about to enter the great unknown: a prairie. This newly restored prairie showed the fruit of many hours of volunteer removal of invasive species. Tallgrass prairies like these are globally endangered; only 0.01 percent of Illinois original prairies remain intact. It’s no wonder it would seem so foreign to this Chicago youngster. We fear what we don’t know.
Over the next hour she and her classmates learned about prairie grasses that reached above their heads: Big Bluestem, Indian Grass, and one that could double as a heavy metal band name: Rattlesnake Master. They were set loose on an exploration walk with bug boxes and magnifying glasses and, with a few reassuring words, soon she and her classmates were laughing and saying things like, “Look what I found!” as they navigated this new place. Soon it was hard to keep track of them among the golden dried grasses.
Her experience of being nervous around nature is a product of a larger issue among twenty-first century children. We are living in a time where life happens indoors. In the words of Richard Louv, “childhood has moved indoors.” Children’s use of space has changed from being primarily outdoors to indoors, increasingly adult supervised, and full of screens. Louv coined this tendency “Nature Deficit Disorder” in 2005, sparking a movement to help re-establish and foster stronger connections between children and nature. In part, this was what led me to Beaubien Woods on a fall day to host a Mighty Acorns field trip as part of my role at the Field Museum of Natural History. Our Youth Conservation Action programs aim to foster the next generation of environmental leaders by connecting kids to nature on Chicago’s far south and west sides, providing them with the knowledge, skills, and experience needed to foster love and care for nature. These kids come from neighborhoods that face a range of challenges, but are also places with strong community leaders, social networks, and, if they live close to places like Beaubien Woods, potential access to beautiful green spaces. More than 85 percent of Youth Conservation Action’s third throughtwelfth grade students are considered low income, according to student lunch data, and over 94 percent are students of color. These students are inspiring, passionate, and helping redefine what “green” can and should look like in urban spaces. As they continue in their schooling, we’ve seen that many are pursuing environmental paths and helping transform the U.S. environmental movement.
In this essay I explore the implications of Nature Deficit Disorder and its consequences for children and the long-term health of people and the planet. These stories are drawn from my experiences working with kids in urban green spaces. I pay particular attention to the need for the environmental movement to invest in the next generation of environmental leaders by connecting kids to nature in culturally relevant ways while also working to transform thought, practice, and leadership in order to become a more diverse, equitable, and inclusive movement.
Screens and the Great Indoors
On a mild, gray day I notice slides, swings, and plastic climbing “rocks” as my son and I approach our neighborhood playground. But I’m most struck by what I don’t see: children. This is far from an anomaly. A recent global survey of twelve thousand parents found that“on average, children now spend less time outdoors than a prison inmate”—less than an hour a day.
Today’s kids have an alluring reason to be indoors—screens. Common Sense Media’s recent study showed that teens in the United States spend nine hours a day on screens—not including school or homework. Similarly, the Kaiser Family Foundation has found that young people ages eight to eighteen spend an average of more than seven to thirteen hours a day with eyes locked on a screen. These numbers are smaller for younger children but are still pervasive, with the average child under eight spending nearly two hours a day on screen media. Technology isn’t inherently bad; however, it has come with a cost. Children are heavier and unhappier as obesity and anxiety are on the rise. Today, nearly one in every three American kids is overweight or obese. A 2018 report in Pediatrics found that obesity jumped from 14 percent in 1999 to 18.5 percent in 2016. Our youngest children, ages two to five, had the highest increase, from 9 percent to 14 percent. Kids who are obese are more likely to be more prone to various health problems later on. Technology isn’t bad, but we need to promote a healthy balance.
From Hunters and Gatherers to Cubicle Dwellers
We have not evolved to lead sedentary, indoor lives, and our bodies and minds show it. I remember a spring field trip I led at Wolf Lake, which straddles the Illinois/Indiana border on Chicago’s Far Southeast Side. Wolf Lake is rife with the evidence of the region’s industrial past and present: the view of the water, nesting bald eagles, and greenery is next to the Indiana Toll Road, massive power lines, and the Midwest’s largest oil refinery. It’s also a great spot for fishing, hunting, and family picnics, and on that spring day, nature exploration.
While on the exploration portion of the trip, one nine-year-old tromped around as if walking in a bounce house. His arms flailed as he awkwardly lifted one leg and then another to navigate fallen logs. At one point he nearly went down on all fours to keep up with the uneven terrain. It reminded me of watching my son learn how to walk: lots of concentration as he lifted and lowered his limbs, all while appearing as if he was walking a tight rope. This might as well have been the first time this kiddo walked on uneven ground. Scenes like this are an example of a larger issue facing American youth. There are reports of underdeveloped vestibular (balance) systems in children as a byproduct of our indoor, sedentary lifestyles. A 2014 article in The Washington Post reported its study of classrooms with seemingly “hyperactive” kids who had trouble sitting still. The Post found that confining kids to static lives had various physical impacts, including on their vestibular systems. They argue that to develop a strong balance system, children must be moving, in all sorts of ways, for many hours at a time. Luckily, unmanicured nature offers just that.
Nature on Our Mind, Our Minds on Nature
Beyond the physiological impacts, there are significant mental health benefits to time in nature. An increased sense of calm, a restored ability to focus, improved behavior and attitudes, and higher academic achievement are just a few of the benefits. If you’ve ever felt calmer and happier after time in nature, it’s not a fluke. Nature has a recuperative effect on our senses. The Japanese have known this for centuries and turned it into its own art form: Shinrin-yoku, meaning “Forest Bathing.” This practice is simply the process of connecting to a nature through your senses. It’s a structured way to let go of so much structure, allowing for time to notice all the sensations of being in the natural world.
While nature-based field trips with kids are no forest bath, they can move toward the same result. Children, especially those who are rarely outdoors, can sometimes look more like raucous concert attendees than reflective forest bathers. All that fresh air is invigorating, and their enthusiasm contagious. Mindfulness in nature fascinates me, and, as a bonus, it provides a moment’s peace during the chaos of outdoor trips, so I started to create quiet moments for kids during the trips in order to connect to their senses. Standing like statues, we would partake in a quick journey among the senses: “What do you hear? What do you smell? And what do you feel?” Many of the kids are taken by the feel of the wind on their cheeks. Others say that they can hear the chirping of birds, the hum of speeding cars, or, more simply, air. A small boy once said, with a wild look in his eye, “I heard a wolf walk by us.”
Nature’s restorative benefits have drawn a lot study. Attention Restoration Theory (ART) posits that time in nature has a restorative effect on our mental state, asserting that mental fatigue and concentration can be improved by spending time in nature.
Even looking at natural images has been suggested to be beneficial to the human psyche. In an age when our brains are continually bombarded with stimuli, our minds need time for recuperation. Stephen Kaplan finds that the restorative impact of nature is affected by various things, including the “soft fascination”:
Nature is certainly well-endowed with fascinating objects, as well as offering many processes that people find engrossing. Many of the fascinations afforded by the natural setting qualify as “soft” fascinations: clouds, sunsets, snow patterns, the motion of the leaves in the breeze—these readily hold the attention, but in an undramatic fashion. Attending to these patterns is effortless, and they leave ample opportunity for thinking about other things.
This fascination plays a crucial role in attention restoration and is also accessible to everyone. And it isn’t just reserved for vast mountain ranges; in the words of Emma Marris, “Nature is everywhere, we just need to learn to see it.”
Enhanced attention due to nature exposure has been documented by the Children and Nature Network, and participating Youth Conservation Action teachers often note that the students who are often the most disruptive in the classroom are well behaved and engaged during outdoor field trips. Students engage all their senses, they move about, and they directly experience things in a way that helps those with attention issues to be deeply engaged while learning.
Kids need nature for their physical and mental well-being, but nature can also help children connect to others. On a trip to Eggers Woods, kids were engaged in hands-on engineering as they built a fort in a cluster of trees. They laughed, negotiated, and communicated like well-polished designers as they figured out how to lift heavy logs into formations that could produce a sturdy structure. Their teacher and I watched from a short distance. As the students continued to build not only the fort, but their team, the teacher teared up. She pointed to a young boy as he lifted a branch and carried it to the fort. She said she had never seen him engage so well with his peers. He often was a loner who didn’t engage well with others, she said. We watched as he interacted, excited and animated with his peers, in the creation of their new structure. Nature can bring people together.
Natural places are special, but they are meaningful in part, because we share them with others. According to the Nature of Americans study, “Experiences in nature are deeply social.” Other studies show that people’s most memorable experiences in the outdoors involve other people and, similarly, conservation professionals tend to share a common reason for pursuing an environmental career: a love of nature stemming from meaningful outdoor childhood experiences with an adult who was important to them.
That kids today are inside, attached to screens, and that this isn’t all that helpful to their waistlines and headspace has been well documented. But why is it so hard to get outside? Here I examine the barriers that keep kids from getting outside and examples of solutions to connect kids to nature.
Breaking Down Barriers
Access to safe green space can be a barrier to connecting kids to nature, and nature can feel rare in an increasingly urban world. Today more than half of the Earth’s 7.6 billion human inhabitants live in cities, and in the United States, the population is 82 percent urban. Cities tend to draw a veil between people and the natural world. Some communities may lack access to safe green spaces due to contamination or the threat of violence. This is true in parts of Chicago, where in some neighborhoods playing outside isn’t safe, and sticking to screens indoors may seem like a better option. Nationally, environmental organizations are beginning to recognize the issues of equity and access to green spaces. Locally, organizational partners are attempting to lower the barriers of transportation and offering culturally appropriate and inclusive programming with a goal of connecting Chicago residents to more than 370,000 acres of protected land found in and around the city.
Even when green spaces are physically accessible, fear can be a major obstacle to overcome. Risks can range from uncomfortable poison ivy to dangerous people in the woods. Perceptions of how welcome people are in these spaces are also important. Levi Jenkins, a Field Museum intern and later staff member, noted that natural areas can seem uninviting:
We went to Indiana Dunes, we went to nature preserves, and like you, when you think about those places they seem boring, and . . . not approachable, but they are actually so much fun when you go there and learn stuff. You make new friends, like real friends, that you can talk to about anything.
How to be safely immersed in nature is a learned skill. Through the Outdoors Empowered Network (OEN), partners across the United States, including the Forest Preserves of Cook County and the Chicago Park District, are helping adults and youth experience nature safely via hiking and camping activities. OEN members provide gear libraries and educational programs that have successfully trained hundreds of individuals to lead youth on hiking and camping trips. By using this model kids are connecting to nature with the adults they are already familiar with and trust—parents, youth workers, and others—in a way that best meets their needs, interests, and cultural background. This process addresses the barriers to getting outside while empowering communities to connect to nature in culturally relevant ways.
Nature Needs Kids
While kids need nature, nature also needs kids. In the age of climate change, mass extinction, and unprecedented environmental degradation, there is a need for champions of the Earth. The health of the global environment is contingent on people actively protecting and advocating for a sustainable planet. People don’t protect what they don’t care about or what they don’t know. That’s why it’s so important to support outdoor programs that expose all children to the natural world—with multiple and meaningful experiences in nature—so that they not only reap the benefits of experiencing nature, but also grow up to be advocates for a healthy planet.
Building a Culture of Conservation
We know that there’s a disconnect between today’s youngsters and nature, and it’s adversely impacting them and the planet. The good news is that we know a lot about how to re-establish that important connection. Youth Conservation Action programs focus on building the capacity for nature-based education. By working with educators, the Chicago Field Museum is instilling a culture of environmental care at Chicago schools. We train teachers to take kids outside to learn and provide tools to collaborate with others to bring a vision of environmental awareness and action. While we can provide high-quality field trips, the best trips are the ones led by the school teachers themselves. Doing this requires specialized nature educator training and instructional support that help educators connect curriculum to nature in a meaningful way.
This approach has been fruitful. We asked some of our students what they would tell someone about their Mighty Acorns field trip. Their responses weren’t “it lowered my obesity” or “I really challenged my vestibular system in appropriate ways,” but instead, “I would tell him/her that this was the best field trip that I’ve ever been to in my life,” and “I would tell them that it is a real adventure and they would learn a lot about biodiversity and non-native and native plants,” and, one of my favorites, “I had the best day ever. I cut honeysuckle bushes. My trip was fun. There is nothing better.”
Teachers also report the sense of achievement, poise, and confidence that radiates from the students as they enter back into school after a nature-based field trip—muddy, dirty, and giddy with fresh air. One teacher told me, “It’s like they’re returning from the jungle, even though they were just a few blocks away at a Forest Preserve. The other students are envious.” And we see the fruits of this approach as program participants grow from “mentees to colleagues.” We are lucky to work with past students and others who followed the spark of excitement on a nature-based field trip all the way to an environmental career.
The quote that sits on my desk is, “You cannot protect land from people, you can only protect land with people,” by Peter Forbes. If we want to protect land with people, they are found mostly in cities. By 2050 it is projected that 68 percent of the world’s population will be urban. Wilderness and metropolis are often thought of as opposites, separate and distinct. However, cities and nature are intricately connected and shape each other.
There is a shift happening in many cities that are now designed to embed nature in everyday experience. An exponentially growing population is putting the world’s resources under stress as our extractive economic model booms around the globe. If the planet is to withstand the human impact of over 9.7 billion people by 2050, we must find new and innovative ways to live together, especially in these urban settings. This means using resources efficiently, lowering our ecological footprints, and finding ways to integrate nature into our everyday, urban lives. Designing youth programs that let kids today be the problem solvers on real environmental issues is empowering. As one of our program alums put it: “I’m not going to be the last human being here. . . . There are going to be generations after me and the damage that I’m doing right now is going to affect them more than it’s going to affect me right now. It’s like you’re doing something positive and that’s powerful.”
This growing urbanization also means shifts in traditional conservation mindsets. Cities can be good for nature, offering spaces for humans to live closer to each other and share resources. And while cities have often been deemed polluted, crowded places devoid of nature, we are finding that they actually can provide some critical habitat for creatures like the monarch butterfly. Recent reports have shown how cities can be important places in migration paths for these animals who don’t need large swaths of land, but safe and consistent places to land and eat—many of which can be nestled into parks, backyards, and medians.
Fostering a Diverse Generation of Nature Nuts
Nature needs a strong and diverse next generation of stewards equipped with the awareness, knowledge, skills, and passion needed to ensure that environmental protection and human well-being are integrated and prioritized. Everyone has the right to live in a healthy environment and have access to green space and nature. However, in the United States, this ideal isn’t realized for many. Many low-income African American and Latino communities often lack accessible green spaces and are disproportionately impacted by pollution. Youth not only need to be connected to nature but need the tools to speak out and take civic action on environmental injustices. We need the youth of today to help us build the nature-rich cities of the future that are just, equitable, and green.
Historically, the environmental movement in the United States has been predominantly white and has not always prioritized Environmental Justice communities. For example, Green 2.0 has produced annual reports to document the diversification (or lack thereof) of the environmental movement. Their initial report, The Green Insiders’ Club, found that “racial composition in environmental organizations and agencies has not broken the 12 to 16 percent ‘green ceiling’ that has been in place for decades.” In recent years the environmental and conservation movements have begun to acknowledge and tackle diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) issues, but much work remains to be done. Environmental organizations like the Sierra Club and 350.org have been very public with their incorporation of civil rights into their platforms, while other organizations are working with DEI specialists to try to figure out how to improve. These are positive steps, but the overall success of DEI activities in the environmental movement has not been fully realized. Despite DEI efforts by some environmental organizations, an early 2019 report by Green 2.0 found that staff and leadership in environmental organizations have actually become less diverse.
As conservation and environmental movements acknowledge their problematic past and commit to building a bigger, better, and more inclusive movement, there’s a need to make sure that DEI activities go beyond lip service—that they have clear goals with adequate resources behind them along with a continued commitment to check in, report, and change. The path forward is unknown, but we know by examining these issues and truly addressing them we have the opportunity to build a much bigger, better, and more equitable environmental movement.
The stories we tell inform people’s perceptions of nature. The U.S. conservation movement has often jumped to narratives that idealize wilderness, solitude, and leisure. Whether it’s the idealization of Lewis and Clark as they explored the westward wilderness or the image of Aldo Leopold sitting in a field making nature observations, the conservation movement has perpetuated environmental narratives that narrowly define a meaningful connection to nature and has, in many cases, not included the experience of people of color with nature.
And there are many stories to include, from the diverse history and cultural practices of the many Indigenous Nations of the Americas who were shaped by their relationship to Turtle Island to the vast agricultural knowledge of European and Asian settlers, and free or former African slaves who worked the land for sustenance and survival. Researchers Dr. Carolyn Finney and Dr. Dorceta Taylor have documented the exclusive and racist history of the conservation movement that still has an active legacy today. They have pointed out that for many communities, natural areas have been places of trauma. Whether one’s family crossed a remote desert in search of a better life or feared backwoods lynchings, these stories influence how safe and welcome people feel in nature. Giving voice to the many untold stories of people of color who have been an integral and important part of the U.S. environmental and conservation movements can be a way to expand what it means to connect to nature.
Nature can be a place of healing, growth, and renewal, but not without truly understanding that we all bring different experiences, stories, and ancestors to our relationship to nature. Therefore, programming that “connects kids to nature” must incorporate the histories, stories, and community-held aspirations for green space, and we must support natural areas that welcome and reflect community needs.
In summer 2018, teens participating in the museum’s Chicago Green Ambassadors program decided they wanted to help challenge the stereotypical images of nature and to help create new stories of what it means to be green. After learning of Taylor and Finney’s work about dominant environmental narratives, they began to make their own. They started capturing their “ideas of nature,” helping us rethink what and where nature really is. Their photos ranged from warm summer nights on porches to urban lakefronts, to open skies above crowded roofs. This program is an integral component of the Roots and Routes Initiative, which is a collaborative project aimed at creating and sustaining the Burnham Wildlife Corridor on Chicago’s south lakefront in order to maximize benefits for neighboring communities and nature. Youth receive training in action research that helps them connect their communities to nature in culturally relevant ways. This program has had transformative power for the teens, our staff, and the communities where we work. It’s powerful to see teens continue to find their voice for the future while connecting to nature, each other, and their neighborhoods.
Most of us want to connect to nature. Nature is essential for all of us, but especially for kids. We are living in a time of great opportunity, when the solutions to today’s environmental crisis are very much evolving. Institutions like the Field Museum and others have a responsibility to acknowledge historical and existing racism and be part of the conversations and actions that move us toward a more equitable and inclusive environmental movement. We need a new movement that reflects the diversity of thought, background, and experience in the United States. We need new innovators, problem solvers, and passionate nature nuts to curb the impacts of climate change. And building that new movement means a strong investment in youth.
The youth will be the new leaders who provide a strong voice for what the future should look like for the planet. We need to intentionally make spaces to create and form a new narrative for a new environmental movement that is innovative, integrated, multidisciplinary, and represents the diversity of the United States. This means understanding and acknowledging the racist and exclusionary principles that were present during the emergence of the U.S. conservation movement and, later, the environmental movement. We are living in times of unprecedented degradation; we need unprecedented collaboration and change.
And it’s fun. At a time when things can feel hopeless for the environment, children offer hope. You can see the beauty through their eyes, even at places like Beaubien where, while surrounded by highways, sewage, and landfills, the magic of nature can still provide exploration, respite, and lots of laughter.