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Thursday, December 25, 2014 |  Madison, WI: 34.0° F  Overcast
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Leave no child inside
With a little help, kids can learn to love, not fear, nature
Madison School Forest.
Madison School Forest.

Ben and Jason don't like the woods. Both boys are about 7 years old, wearing shorts and T-shirts on this warm spring day. Jason is the taller, thinner and more fidgety of the two. They walk with me at the back of the group of students, eyes wide and anxious as they survey the tall pines and deep undergrowth.

Just a few minutes ago, back at the Oelke Lodge, Ben and Jason were regular class clowns - talking loud, joking, bragging about how they were going to be the first ones through the forest tour. Now? Quiet little mice. Ben starts to hold his hand out in my direction, then remembers I'm essentially a stranger - I was introduced back at the lodge as, "a writer working on a story" - and pulls his hand back. Still, he and Jason seem glad for my presence and keep glancing at me to make sure I'm nearby.

The boys are second-graders from Kennedy Elementary School in Junction City, Wis., and they are here on a class field trip at the Boston School Forest, just south of nearby Stevens Point. The School Forest hosts nearly 200 field trips each year from local school districts.

The other eight kids in my group also seem a bit nervous, holding the hands of the teacher and chaperone, clustering together, occasionally laughing too loud. But they're chattering happily, pointing to birds and tree stumps, asking questions, connecting with the outdoors.

As I walk along, I think about what Karen Dostal, the school district's environmental education coordinator, told me earlier, before the kids arrived. Though the children are from a small town surrounded by woods and dairy farms, Dostal said exploring the outdoors would likely be a new experience for some kids. They might be scared by it all.

"It's surprising how many of even the farm kids are so plugged into their Game Boys and PlayStations," she said.

We come to a fork in the trail, and the group stops. Dostal, who is leading our group, asks the boys and girls if they know what kind of trees we have around us. "Pine trees!" several of the kids holler. Ben and Jason stand just in front of me, arms folded and lips pursed. Dostal explains that the two main species here are red and white pines, pointing out the very smooth bark of the white pines versus the rough, scrabbly bark of the reds.

Then, Dostal has students gather pinecones and pieces of bark that have peeled off the trees. Ben and Jason initially hold their ground, clearly not wanting to venture off the trail. But when the four girls in the group - girls! - jump into the woods and begin gathering, it's too much for the guys. They scurry under the trees, talking to each other about their finds. Dostal calls the kids back, examines their branches and cones, asking if they can identify which species they're from.

From then on, it's like a switch has been flipped for Ben and Jason. No longer at the back of the group, they are now leading the pack, shouting "Look what we found!" when they find a pile of bleached deer bones. They forge ahead of the main group so far that Dostal has to call them back.

The youngsters seem to connect with Dostal as much as they do with the woods and wildlife, asking her questions, eager to contribute. She leads us to a small pond that lies below Oelke Lodge. The pond is bisected by a wooden walkway, and we join another group of students already there. The kids "ooh" and "aah" at the smallmouth bass and crappies in the water below. On the other side of the walkway lies a swampy area with cattails. A few turtle heads pop up out of the brown water, then disappear. Dragonflies dart over the tops of the cattails.

A small girl from the other group approaches me. Her nametag reads "Emily." She's about three-feet-nothing, with long brown hair and a look of intense interest on her pretty face.

"Look what we found," she says, opening her cupped hands to show me a tiny, translucent shell.

"What is it?" I ask.

"A dragonfly's skeleton," she says excitedly. "He broke out and flew away."

Emily gives me a big, happy smile and rejoins her friends.

Meanwhile, Ben and Jason lead the rest of my group back to the lodge. It's time for lunch, they tell me. "And then," Jason says, "we're going out to see more trees and birds and cool stuff!"

Nature-deficit disorder

It's a truism as old as the woods: If you want to help kids develop an appreciation for nature, you have to get them outdoors. That's why places like the Boston School Forest - or the forest maintained by the Madison school district - exist.

But some observers say kids today are having fewer opportunities than ever to experience nature firsthand.

"Within the space of a few decades, the way children understand and experience nature has changed radically," writes Richard Louv in his 2006 book, Last Child in the Woods: Saving Our Children From Nature-Deficit Disorder. "Today, kids are aware of the global threats to the environment - but their physical contact, their intimacy with nature, is fading....

"A kid today can likely tell you about the Amazon rainforest - but not about the last time he or she explored the woods in solitude, or lay in a field listening to the wind and watching the clouds move."

Louv cites a three-generation study showing that the radius around the home in which 9-year-olds were allowed to wander had shrunk by 90% from 1970 to 1990. Parents cited fears of everything from crime to air pollution.

When Louv writes that many American children suffer from a "nature-deficit disorder," he is not suggesting some medical diagnosis. Rather, he's referring to "the human costs of alienation from nature," like diminished use of the senses, a dearth of physical activity, and an overall lack of emotional and spiritual health, compared to kids who regularly spend time outside.

More Americans than ever live in cities and suburbs. According to Census data from 2000, 68% of Wisconsinites lived in urban areas, and only 2.5% were considered "rural farm population."

And no matter where they live, kids today have more indoor activity options than ever before.

The Kaiser Family Foundation discovered that children are exposed to a staggering 60 hours per week of electronic media. And University of Michigan researchers have documented that today's kids spend 20% more time on homework than they did in the 1980s. Participation in organized sports, indoors and out, has increased significantly, too.

Meanwhile, between 1990 and 2000, there was a 26% decline in hunting by youth between the ages of 12 and 17, according to the Sporting Goods Manufacturer's Association. Over that same period, the same age group experienced an 8% decline in freshwater fishing. And the Outdoor Industry Foundation found that participation in such outdoor activities as backpacking, bicycling and rock climbing by young adults between the ages of 16 and 24 dropped approximately 15% between 2004 and 2005.

This has serious consequences for the environment. Disconnected from the outdoors, the current generation may not see nature as something that should be enjoyed - or saved. Some signs are already apparent.

For instance, undergraduate enrollment in natural resource programs has dropped approximately 10% since the mid-1990s. One possible reason for this, Utah State University researchers note, is the "increasing disconnect between society, particularly young people, and natural resources."

The fear factor

As with other things in life, one of the psychic consequences of this lack of exposure is fear.

Terri Felton, a volunteer with Madison Inner City Outings, which started in 2004, says this is the most common reaction she encounters when trying to introduce young people to the natural world.

"We went to the Arboretum for a night hike last November," Felton remembers. "The kids were really afraid. They were afraid of bugs and spiders and worms. They thought there were bears in the woods."

At a 2005 camp-out at Governor Dodge State Park, near Dodgeville, "The kids were seriously afraid that something was going to eat them in the night," says Felton. "They were also terrified of the deer and raccoons."

An offshoot of the local Sierra Club's Four Lakes Group, Inner City Outings consists of about 25 adult volunteers who team up with local community groups - like the Boys and Girls Clubs, Vera Court Neighborhood Center, and Centro Hispano - to provide approximately two dozen outdoor opportunities for area children annually.

"A lot of the things we do are right near or right in Madison," says Felton, 35. Outings include hikes, camping and canoeing, at places like the UW Arboretum, Lake Farm County Park, Picnic Point and Governor Nelson State Park.

Felton has found that a relatively small amount of time outside can put kids at ease about spending time outdoors. For instance, on the Governor Dodge trip, "the next morning they were totally fine. All those fears were gone!"

But it isn't just scary bugs and bears keeping kids from venturing outside. Youngsters are also grounded by the fears of their parents, says Nancy Fonzen, head naturalist at the Madison School Forest, near Verona.

"In Madison, kids can't be kids," says Fonzen. "The parents have a big fear of their kids being outside, unsupervised. They're concerned about their kids being kidnapped or molested or other [safety] issues. The kids just don't have the freedom to play around outside."

A mother of six who lives in Madison, Fonzen admits she thinks about these things too. "I understand the fears. But I think when there's fear, so much fear, you trade off a lot of freedom, too."

A big show-and-tell

The approximately 25,000 students enrolled in the Madison Metropolitan School District are exposed to widely varying levels of environmental education.

"The direction from the Department of Public Instruction is that environmental education is to be integrated with instruction [in] other content areas," says Lisa Wachtel, executive director of the district's teaching and learning department.

High school juniors and seniors may take actual environmental studies classes. "But when you look at kindergarten through the 10th grade, you don't have a class called 'Environmental Studies.'"

Rather, says Wachtel, students learn about the environment in connection with other topics. At the fourth-grade level, for example, students should understand the ways that organisms can adapt to their environments. In the eighth grade, "students would be expected to know how humans impact various ecosystems." And by the 12th grade, they may be asked "to evaluate the stability and sustainability of a particular ecosystem."

Classroom lessons are good and necessary. But Fonzen echoes Louv in the point she makes about the students who visit the School Forest: "Well, they know about rainforests and deserts and other ecosystems. But they don't make connections between that and what's going on in their backyards."

Fonzen has been a naturalist at the School Forest for nine years. "I kind of look at what I do as a big show-and-tell," she says. "It's just introducing them to the outdoors."

Often, the students she works with combine a field trip to the forest with classroom projects or assignments. So the teachers may want Fonzen and the other naturalists to focus on tree identification or the weather or invasive species - whatever the classroom connection.

Although a fair number of students display the kinds of fears Felton describes, Fonzen doesn't think the majority of students at the School Forest are actually scared - just uninitiated, maybe a little unsure. Some students have an attitude she calls "coming with negative," where they act bored, apathetic, even rebellious.

"They are the first to complain or whine about being there," Fonzen says of this group. "They won't smile and will barely give you their name when asked. But that changes as the tour goes on."

Another important audience for Fonzen: parent chaperons. "I like it when the parents come along," Fonzen says. "For a lot of them, it's the first time the parents have ever been out in School Forest. And they're like, 'Wow, this is a pretty nice place!'"

Teams of Madison teachers have created various lesson plans that combine the state environmental standards in the classroom with hands-on outdoor activities overseen by naturalists like Fonzen. But in any given year, only about 5,000 students - a fifth of the total - make it to the School Forest.

"There's truly not funding to ensure that every student, in every class, goes out there," says Wachtel. Besides, Fonzen adds, "I think many teachers have so much on their plates already, it's hard to throw in a field trip, too. And some teachers don't like the woods, anyway."

A sense of accomplishment

One of the nation's leading advocates for getting children outdoors is Cheryl Charles. Though she now works for a nonprofit business consortium, she once was the national director for both Project WILD and Project Learning Tree, programs that help elementary and high school teachers incorporate environmental and nature education into their curriculums.

Charles agrees that, given the need to spend so much class time teaching to proficiency tests, there isn't much room for the environment and conservation - much less field trips outdoors - in many teachers' lesson plans. Still, some progress has been made.

In the mid-1970s, Charles notes, "The concept of 'habitat' didn't show up in the textbooks. Today, it does. There's very good focus on concepts like watersheds. I think that's a real improvement."

Yet students might have little to no contact with the natural world, depending on their teachers and school districts. In or out of school, Charles says the trick is to provide simple, no-frills opportunities to get young people outside.

"It doesn't have to be big," says Charles. "A trip to a local park, a short nature walk through a wooded area, taking kids fishing, exploring a field for plants and wildlife. But there also has to be some learning and some sense of accomplishment built around the experience."

Unstructured playtime outdoors - everything from an impromptu game of hide-and-seek to just lying on a hillside and watching clouds - helps kids find nature on their own terms. With structured, supervised activities, kids need to have small accomplishments incorporated into the experience.

For example, learning how to pick out characteristics of plants (like Dostal's short tutorial on white-versus-red pine bark), can make the seemingly complex outdoors something a little smaller and more intimate.

Dostal, with 20 years of experience as an environmental educator, thinks many of the kids she encounters are starved for outdoor experiences.

"They want to be outside every day, but they don't have the opportunity," she says. "They wish they could have the chance to learn about nature in an outdoor setting more often. Whether learning about nature or having fun, outdoor experiences are something that they will seek out - given the opportunity."

And it's educators who can lead the way.

"We need to impress upon people the importance of getting children to the greenspaces and letting them find the joy and wonder of nature," Dostal contends. "Kids need to simply experience free time in the outdoors, repeatedly, in order to come to appreciate the physical, emotional and spiritual benefits of being close to nature."

When Dostal tells me this, I think of the end of our field trip day, inside a small nature center. The kids are using eyedroppers to squeeze a drop or two of pond water onto glass slides. Then they examine the slides under microscopes for tiny insects and crustaceans.

Ben and Jason seem to be in contest mode, scurrying back and forth from pond water basin to microscopes, seeing who can identify the most specimens first. Emily comes up and asks me to look into her microscope. I peer into the lens and see a squiggling mass.

"What is it?" I ask her.

"Pond critters!" she replies happily, using Dostal's term for the organisms.

At just 7, Emily has that light in her eyes of someone who could grow up to love and protect the outdoors. She will, I think - if the adults in her life can provide her with more pond critter experiences, more hikes through the woods, and less time surrounded by walls and doors, where the "outside" is that place viewed through a window.

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