Two powerful assets for parents are lists and friends. As hydrogen and oxygen combine to make water, so these two tools may be amalgamated in the lifetime battle against what bestselling author Richard Louv describes as “nature deficit disorder.”
A growing body of evidence links a wide range of behavior and emotional problems to a lack of time spent in the natural world. According to the American Academy of Pediatrics, children are spending an average of seven hours per day viewing electronic media, and for some kids it’s as ubiquitous as breathing while they continually interact with their smart phones nearly every waking minute.
There is evidence that the ever widening chasm between children and the natural world may be linked to attention disorders, anxiety, depression, obesity, and a full range of problems plaguing our society. While I’m not able to draw a direct line here to establish causation, research and common sense are increasingly demonstrating that unstructured play outdoors aids in reducing anxiety, promoting creativity, cognitive development, a connection to our world, greater physical fitness, and a seemingly endless array of positive outcomes.
Lets just say I’ve drunk the Kool Aid on this, as has much of the establishment and the scientific community. Of course our grandparents would call this simple common sense.
And yet, even with a tidal wave of evidence backing up what most of us instinctively know to be true, it is more difficult than ever to win the ongoing war that rages against our families in this area, and will continue to do so for the rest of our lives.
If this was simple for anyone to inculcate in our children, it should be me, but alas it’s a daily challenge. My own enthusiasm for simple experiences in the outdoors is virtually unmatched, due to a childhood that was bereft of many of the opportunities Duluthians often take for granted. I have exposed my children to many and varied experiences in the wilderness, and sometimes I too am tempted to throw my hands in the air.
A pleasant surprise this summer has been a list we received from National Geographic for Kids, “101 Things to do Outside.” I made a deal that if my kids completed the entire list this summer, and journaled about each one, that we would take them to a water park. This challenge has been a fantastic activity, and is exposing them to many and varied ideas they normally wouldn’t choose on their own. Best yet, for the most part they are working through the list independently.
There have been numerous opportunities to take up the challenge as a family, however, such as finding and identifying our state flower, the showy lady slipper. This was remarkably rewarding, and the rangers at Jay Cooke State Park were tremendously helpful for us. I too am now able to check this one off my own bucket list.
Another one was mountain biking. This past week I have been reminded of the power of friends in helping to cement a positive experience as well, and hopefully that will lead to a lifelong love of another positive outdoor activity.
My son and two friends from the neighborhood were enthralled by miles one, two, and three, of the new Duluth Traverse in Lester Park, which will one day span the zenith city and provide access to people of all ability levels throughout. I was stunned by how rideable this trail is for non-technical riders, and yet is a rollicking good time for everyone from kids to seasoned off-road racers. The challenging and yet encouraging hills, endless variety, spectacular scenery, and remarkable terrain as the trail threads through the forest on undulating rises, dips, and banked curves of switchbacks that do not try to defeat our topography but instead uses it to its full potential, has opened a world of opportunity to average riders and children while retaining the interest of experts.
Having friends along for this first experience allowed the kids to overcome fears and produced a shared energy they all feasted on. A chance to frolic in a warm swimming hole capped off an epic evening, and one that will not be soon forgotten.