Why Kids Need a Big Dose of Nature

A falloff in visits to the nation's parks offers further evidence of "nature deficit disorder."

Boy (8-9) on tree, leaning on branch, looking up

In addition to preventing disease, is there evidence that exposure to nature can actually boost abilities?

Yes, much of the evidence points to benefits. We see increased self-confidence, better body image, and cognitive benefits. Kids who spend more time outdoors tend to do better on testing; they do better on science; they tend to play more cooperatively. Your parents allowed you to run loose in the woods while you were growing up in Missouri. Should today's parents try to somehow overcome their fears and let their children do the same?

No, I won't say that. This isn't an exercise in nostalgia. I felt that fear as a parent, and my kids didn't run as freely as I did. I do think, though, that we have to be very intentional now about getting our kids outdoors. It's going to be different than when we were kids, and we'll have to do much of it together with them. We also have to do a much better job of comparing risks. Yes, there are some dangers outdoors, but there is also great danger of raising a future generation of children under virtual house arrest. Yes, Lyme disease can be a problem, but it's also worth pointing out that one of the most dangerous spiders in North American—the brown recluse—likes to live inside in closets.

What would you say to people who say that they live in the city and getting to nature is essentially impossible?

I would tell them that the Sierra Club sponsors an interesting volunteer program in which they put backpacks on the kids and go on a 5-mile hike in their city, in their own neighborhood, and find nature. Anybody can do that with their children. Anywhere you are you can find birds nesting in windowsills or bugs crawling in alleys. Urban birding, windowsill gardening, planting flowers that attract butterflies—there are options for people who live in cities. Does the increasing interest in global warming and the environment help at all?

If we emphasize environmental destruction at too early an age in the absence of a joyful experience, we are setting up kids to associate nature with the end of things and fear and disaster. That's important, but we also need to emphasize the positive that nature plays simply by being there.