As a mother raising a young son in Florida, I am acutely aware of the drastically limited opportunities children have to freely access and enjoy the natural world in America today, compared to when I was a child. I spent endless hours exploring the woods and playing with friends throughout the community. In addition to parks and woodlands, we were well versed in the network of alleyways, drain pipes, and empty parcels of land that made excellent fields for our sports and games. There was a critical mass of children outside playing and it simply never occurred to me that the freedom I took for granted would be a foreign concept to my own child.
The numerous reasons for this sad turn of events include, sprawling development encroaching on nearly all natural areas in communities across the US; more children in “after-care” programs until late in the day to accommodate working parent’s schedules; parent’s disproportionate fear of “stranger danger”; and children remaining indoors consuming increased amounts of media via television and computer gaming. In addition, Florida parents have concerns about the abundance of alligators, which can be presumed to inhabit any of the numerous ponds and lakes found throughout the region (and indeed, right next to many homes). All of these factors have conspired to eliminate the critical mass of children who played outside a mere generation ago.
How do I address these seemingly insurmountable challenges to help my son connect with nature? My personal awareness at the individual level is the critical starting point. It means that in our family, high value is placed on time spent outdoors. Every day I ensure my son has as much unstructured playtime outside as possible, whether it be in our garden, a park, the beach, a bike ride, or exploring trails at our local nature reserves. We have a beautiful natural infrastructure here that is easily accessible if made a priority.
In America we talk a lot about the high prevalence of childhood obesity, and it is my opinion that if parents would find ways around their time constraints to get their children outdoors, important gains might be made in reversing this detrimental trend and its associated negative outcomes. My son’s play experiences may not compare to the unsupervised freedom of my childhood, but at least he gets to run around outside enjoying the wonders of nature, whether it be a breathtaking view, observing the activities of an ant hill, or making a whistle out of a blade of grass.
By Aunna Elm, Florida