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Leave No Child Inside

Courtesy of LNCI-GC

For the first day in a long time it feels like spring might actually return to Louisville. Before heading for a hike at the Beargrass Creek State Nature Preserve – a 41-acre hideaway right smack in the middle of town – a twinge of selfishness bubbles up when I think of the trails; they’ll be packed on a day like this.

But I don’t know whether to be happy or sad when I find the trails virtually deserted. I’d expected to encounter parents out here with young children who’ve been driving them nuts cooped up inside for months. Instead, I see a jogger and another lone walker. Finally, a group of about five high school boys comes up the path. They’ve been taking water samples for a school community service project, and will add a little mulch to the trailhead before they leave. Savvier than I am, the boys tell me its no surprise so few young people are in the woods on a perfect day.

They say their peers would rather be inside playing video games or watching television. “You have to actually kind of be somewhat creative outdoors,” says Andrew Schutte, explaining why running around and exploring seems like work to kids who simply don’t know how to enjoy the outdoors.

As a child who often wandered the nearest wooded space in hopes of getting a little lost – and as an adult who still does – I find that reality difficult to accept. But I’m not alone. A nationwide effort to reverse the trend of kids spending less and less time outdoors called Leave No Child Inside (LNCI) aims to elevate outdoor activity to a higher level in children’s lives. The movement’s title is a play on the federal Leave No Child Behind education initiative, but it also stresses the idea that to leave our children unconnected to nature is a form of collective neglect.

The 2005 book, “Last Child in the Woods: Saving Our Children From Nature Deficit Disorder,” sparked renewed concern about kids growing up with little understanding of the world outside the electrified boxes that are home, school and work. Author Richard Louv argues human beings have a biological need for experiences in the natural world. He points to epidemic social maladies such as childhood obesity, attention deficit disorder and depression, which are linked to nature deficit. He also points out that society has become so concerned about extremely small risks – child abductions, lyme disease and so on – that fear has driven our children inside.

Helping kids get out
Despite the icy pellets of snow hitting their rosy-cheeked faces, a group of excited children crowd around to pet Houdini, a lop-eared rabbit that Jackie Brown, education coordinator and naturalist for Preservation Parks of Delaware County (OH) has brought today. The park system is a member of the Leave No Child Inside Central Ohio Collaborative.

It’s the day before Easter, and the kids have braved the chilly temperatures to be here at the Emily Traphagen Preserve for an Easter egg hunt and nature program. As they wait for the hunt to begin, Jackie quizzes the kids on the identification of the pelts laid out on the picnic table. Confident shouts of “raccoon,” “opossum” and “fox,” come from the group. These young boys and girls know exactly what they are looking at. After reviewing the pelts and talking about coyotes, Jackie shows the group some nests of birds common to the area, such as blue birds, chickadees and tree swallows.

Mackenzie Metzger, 11 years old, has been a member of PETA (People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals) since she was nine. Although she wasn’t so hot on the animal pelts today, she loves spending time outside. “I like to come here (to the Emily Traphagen Preserve) a lot. One time we came around and saw a raccoon that had just had a couple of babies, so we like to come around and see the newcomers.”

Mackenzie says most of her friends at school don’t like to spend time outside. “They like to stay inside and use technology … like the iPod, computer, cell phone, stuff like that. I like those too; I’m just more of an outdoor person.”

Turns out that Mackenzie is also a one-girl force for Leave No Child Inside. “I think it’s a pretty good idea to get friends that don’t like the outdoors so that you can interest them in it, and that’s what I’m doing so far.”

After the kids scatter to hunt for eggs, Mackenzie’s mother, Janene Metzger, talks about the barriers to getting kids outdoors. “Definitely fear,” she begins, “My daughter would love to come to the park and spend hours at the park and if not all three (siblings) want to do it at the same time, then of course we have to figure out what we are going to do. And I will not allow her to come over, even with a couple other girls, to a park that I can’t see.”

But soon it’s clear where Mackenzie gets her love for the outdoors. Her parents make it a priority to get their children outside. “We like to make it a family thing, so we’ll go on nature hikes, we’ll ride our bikes and we like to do a lot of scavenger hunts outside,” Janene adds. She and her husband are the outdoorsy parents in the neighborhood, the ones who will readily play in the back yard with their kids. “On any given night, we probably have 15 kids in the back yard (playing).”

One of the messages the LNCI movement is trying to impress upon parents who might have lost their own connection to nature is that a trip to the park or even a thoughtful exploration of the back yard goes a long way toward connecting children with nature.

Starting in the cities
Leave No Child Inside Greater Cincinnati (LNCI-GC) is using traditional and unexpected avenues get the message across. The group is a coalition of several organizations; one of their major partners is the Cincinnati Nature Center. CNC’s 1,000-acre Rowe Woods is located about 16 miles northeast of the city. The site offers self-guided opportunities that make easy work of tuning kids into the outdoors, from brochures for self-guided hikes to backpacks full of art supplies they loan out so kids can record what they see outside.

But LNCI-GC has learned that a call from the wild isn’t enough; they have to meet people where they are. So they’ve taken on the role of facilitator, teaching groups that are not nature-focused how they can find real nature in an urban jungle.

One success is the garden LNCI-GC helped develop at the University of Cincinnati Child Care Center, where teachers reminiscing about their own childhood time spent outdoors decided they wanted the same for their students. The teachers contacted LNCI-GC, which helped them work with a school and civic garden center to create a child-friendly back yard, complete with logs for climbing and a garden where little hands can dig in the dirt.

Another project underway is comprehensive resource for walking, hiking and bike trails in the city. “We were shocked to find out that there’s no place that you can go to find a map of all the trails in the Greater Cincinnati area,” says Betsy Townsend, co-chair of LNCI-GC. So, she says, they’re tackling that.

The Cincinnati Nature Center is seeing more visitors: more kids signing up for camps, more parents toting very small children in harnesses as they hike. Education director Connie O’Connor says she believes it’s due at least in part to Louv’s book, and to the LNCI message penetrating the community. “One thing about the book is that it helps parents understand the responsibility they need to take.”

Back in Louisville, the smell of fresh mulch mingles with that of soil dampened by melting snow as the five high school boys finish their task. At best, the future will be full of kids like Tyree Wilburn, who says he’s an oddity among peers who’d rather sit indoors in front of a screen moving little more than their fingers. “Video games and TV tell you what to do. It’s a crutch,” he said. “I like to ride bikes, do archery, trap things. I play a lot of video games, but I still get outside.” With the increasing number of groups vowing to Leave No Child Inside, there’s a chance when spring finally breaks again next year, these boys won’t be the only ones on the trail. They might be joined by more friends who appreciate unplugged outdoor fun, all of them growing up and making decisions that will guarantee the same for the generations after them.

Jennifer Oladipo plans to take her winter baking obsession outdoors when camping this summer. She lives in Louisville. Michelle Anderson contributed to this story.

Fun ways to Get Out! with kids
1. After a rainy day, check out a library book about animal tracks, then go hunting for the real thing in muddy spots around the neighborhood. Try stream beds, or bare areas underneath bushes and trees.
2. Compare how many birds you can see or hear in your backyard, at the grocery store, and at the nearest park.
3. Plant a tree and learn about its life cycle. How big will it get? What sort of wildlife tends to live in the tree? What sorts of bugs? What kinds of fruit or nuts might animals (including people!) enjoy eating from the tree when it matures?
4. Make a simple bird feeder by smearing a corn cob, or even a piece of wood with peanut butter. Roll it in shelled sunflower seeds or peanuts and suspend it from a tree branch or porch.
5. Play hide-and-go-seek in a wooded area, and then talk about how and where other creatures might hide or seek shelter nearby.