One of my favorite childhood memories is visiting the Cuyahoga National Park system, near the town of Akron, Ohio, where I used to live.

One of my favorite childhood memories is visiting the Cuyahoga National Park system, near the town of Akron, Ohio, where I used to live.

While not Yosemite or the Grand Canyon, the national park is full of wandering trails and steep cliffs with breathtaking views. I loved paddling my way through the streams and creeks and hopping into swimming holes.

When I moved to North Carolina, the Blue Ridge Mountains were a popular trip for people from my town (my school even brought students there on annual trips). Nearly everyone appreciated some part of the mini-vacations we took, from the astonishing views to mountain biking and whitewater rafting. There was no loss of nature in my early childhood, and I believed for a long time that most children had the same experience.

Most Children Have Little Experience With Nature

However, now that I attend a boarding school with students from various backgrounds, I have realized that my experience is in no way the norm.

After my English class read William Wordsworth’s “Lines Composed a Few Miles above Tintern Abbey,” my teacher asked us: “You understand the feeling of gaze across a landscape and have your breath be taken away, right?” I nodded my head but when I looked around I realized that many of my classmates looked mystified. These were students from Los Angeles, New York, and Beijing among other places, who had never had the opportunity to truly be absorbed in nature.

In these places exists such downtown oases as Central Park and the High Line. Yet, while these parks are a step in the right direction as they provide a quiet escape amongst busy cities, even there one cannot escape the distant noise of traffic. The children that I met were from places with a lack of easy access to park or farmland and while I found their lifestyle surprising, it turns out that 81.6% of the American population reside in urban areas and have similar experiences.

Technology is Not The Only Issue

Many people deride my generation as one obsessed with technology, unable to connect with the actual world because of our absorption with imaginary worlds inside our phones, laptops, and computers. Yet, what that conclusion ignores is that there are very few opportunities for children to play outside by themselves; 43% of British adults believe that children should not play outdoors until age 14.

Stephen Moss, a naturalist, said that actually “more kids today are interested in the natural world than ever before… But fewer are experiencing it directly… and that’s what counts.”  In fact, although parks are numerous across the Western world, a study of British children found that 64% had not played outside in the previous week and 28% had not been on a “country walk” in the last year. These numbers give evidence of a new generation cut-off from a world possibly just outside their front door.

The Problem Is Not Too Late To Be Fixed

If given the opportunity to attend summer camps or partake in field trips, either lead through schools or outreach programs, I and many others believe that young children and teenagers would have greater opportunities.

Not only could it inspire another farmer or park ranger, daily exposure to nature has been shown to positively affect a child’s health. It could also serve as the inspiration for America’s next generation to truly care about the world around us — to see evidence of global warming and what land we have to protect for another two thousand years.

I will never pretend that my abundant experience with nature as I grew up is the correct way, or the only way, to raise a child. In fact, I think cities offer cultural experiences and educational opportunities that are unmatched by many rural settings. Yet, that does mean that we can live in a world with children who are unable to understand the value of nature and will let our parklands and farms fall into disarray and even worse, disappear.
Copyright: Kenneth Sponsler

Yale Young Global Scholar, Hadley Copeland focuses on the North America, Middle East, and Europe.

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