Time Out: Environmental groups, health charities, and other organizations seek ways to help kids discover nature

April 17, 2008 Chronicle of Philanthropy By Debra E. Blum

It was a beautiful spring evening a couple of years back when Liz Baird was walking her dog. She was surprised to find that none of her neighbors were out and about, she says, and she became dismayed upon noticing the glow of televisions behind windows in house after house.

Two questions hounded Ms. Baird, the director of school programs at the North Carolina Museum of Natural Sciences: "Why aren't more people, especially kids, outside? And what can the museum do to get them to want to be there?"

The results of her musings: Take a Child Outside Week, a campaign started by the Raleigh museum last year intended to encourage parents, teachers, and other adults to go outdoors with kids and explore the natural world.

Take a Child Outside Week is one of a growing number of new efforts around the country aimed at getting young people off the couch, unplugged from technology, and enjoying the great outdoors.

Environmental groups are stepping up their field-trip programs, health organizations are promoting opportunities for outdoor play, and many other types of nonprofit groups, including museums, Girl Scout troops, and a local office of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, are working to get kids outside, too.

Collecting rocks, climbing trees, or tilling a garden, the theory behind the efforts goes, help kids develop a healthy lifestyle and an important appreciation for nature and natural resources. "Somewhere along the way we've created an indoor childhood," says Kevin J. Coyle, the National Wildlife Federation's vice president for education. "And that will have broad negative ramifications for our society."

Nurturing Activists
At stake, say Mr. Coyle and other observers, is the health of America's young people, who are increasingly sedentary, and the vitality of the conservation movement, which has always been fueled by people dedicated to nature.

"We're keenly aware that people support and care for what they know, and if we have a demographic of people who spend most of their lives indoors, when they are adults and are voters and donors, they might not have enough of an appreciation for and good feelings about nature to want to make a difference," says Rand Wentworth, president of the Land Trust Alliance, a Washington advocacy organization for conservation groups.

Says Martin LeBlanc, the Sierra Club's national youth-education director: "If we lose a generation of kids who don't have outdoor experiences, we put the Sierra Club and other green groups at risk."

But even while no one would disagree with messages touting physical activity and an appreciation for the environment, some charity officials say the movement to better connect kids with nature may be over-the-top or not quite the panacea many supporters claim it is.

Organizations that promote better health say that while getting kids outdoors is a fine idea, parents and doctors shouldn't lose sight of the fact that getting kids moving, no matter what the activity, is the key to promoting physical well-being.
At the same time, some environmental leaders question the doomsday predictions about future support for the conservation movement. First-person experience is not the only thing that leads people to support a cause, they say, and many young people these days are very well informed and sensitive about critical environmental issues, like global warming and recycling.

Still, giving more kids more opportunities to play outside is a compelling notion, and it has spread virally among a mixed bag of environmentalists, health professionals, child advocates, educators, and civic leaders around the country, spawning plenty of new and expanding efforts in the last couple of years.

Among them:

  • The National Wildlife Federation's Green Hour is a new national campaign to inspire parents to give their kids at least an hour a day to play freely outside and to interact with nature. The Green Hour Web site features ideas for outdoor fun and exploration, whether at a park, in a backyard, or on a small city lot.
  • The Sierra Club has expanded its program, Inner City Outings, by taking urban kids on wilderness excursions and has started a new program, called Building Bridges to the Outdoors, which is a public-education campaign that showcases the benefits of outdoor-education programs.
  • Leave No Child Inside of Greater Cincinnati, formed in 2006, is one of the dozens of local and regional collaborations that have sprung up around the country, bringing together nature, civic, and health organizations to pool resources and ideas.

The Cincinnati group, for example, has published a booklet, called "Grow Outside: A Guide to Outdoor Play," that one of its members, the Collaborative to Prevent Childhood Obesity, helps distribute to hospitals and concerned parents. Through the Greater Cincinnati group, too, a nonprofit child-care center is working with a city gardening club to design and build a free-play backyard space for the center's kids.

  • Girl Scouts of Maine this month is offering a new "No Child Left Inside" patch, an award girls can earn for participating in outdoor activities during each of the four seasons of the year.
  • The Vancouver, Wash., chapter of the NAACP is tripling — to about 600 — the number of kids it gets outside each year as part of its Urban Youth Program. In February, 30 kids went sledding at the Gifford Pinchot National Forest and learned from park staff members about the importance of snow to the region's ecology.

Tracking many of these programs is the Children & Nature Network, in Sante Fe, which started two years ago to provide support and information to people and organizations interested in putting kids in closer touch with nature.

One of the group's founders, Richard Louv, is a journalist credited with jump-starting interest in getting kids outside with his 2005 book, Last Child in the Woods: Saving Our Children From Nature-Deficit Disorder.

In it, he describes the widening gap between nature and today's wired generation; documents the resulting health and social ills; and ponders the question of where the future stewards of the environment will come from.

Government Action
Charity and civic leaders say Mr. Louv's book galvanized a growing unease over the kid-nature disconnect and less than a year later, when the Connecticut Department of Environmental Protection, working on its own program to get families to visit state parks, coined the phrase No Child Left Inside, a movement was born.
Federal legislation introduced last year to strengthen and expand environmental education in America's schools borrowed the wording, and the No Child Left Inside Act of 2007 brought even more notice to the issue.

Congressional watchers say some provisions of that bill are likely to make their way into the broader federal legislation on elementary and secondary education, known as No Child Left Behind.

In the meantime, some new money is finding its way to both old and new efforts to get kids outside.

The U.S. Forest Service is scheduled to announce on Earth Day later this month the organizations that will split $500,000 from the agency's grant program called More Kids in the Woods.

Among the 24 winners last year, the grant program's first, was the Live the Miracles of Nature program, which takes troubled Wyoming youngsters on field trips to the Medicine Bow National Forest. One of the program's partners is a local chapter of Big Brothers Big Sisters, which arranges for kids to participate.

Another Earth Day announcement is expected to come from the Washington State Parks and Recreation Commission, which is administering a new $1.5-million state grant program, called No Child Left Inside. With only five weeks' notice, the agency received nearly 240 applications, requesting a total of $8.7-million.

One key goal of the grant program is to improve students' academic performance and decrease dropout rates in the state, says the park agency's program specialist, Frank Galloway, "We're looking for fun ways to get kids into the outdoors and interesting ways to show them in the natural world why science and math are relevant," Mr. Galloway says. "There will be so many aha moments, and studies tell us those moments translate into the classroom."

The Sierra Club, which lobbied the Washington State Legislature in favor of the grant program, is pushing for similar measures in other states.

A California bill calling for the creation of a new outdoor education and recreation program, supported by the Sierra Club and the American Diabetes Association among other groups, was shelved in February but is expected to be resurrected in some form soon.

Support From Grant Makers
Among foundations, it is difficult to add up support for get-outside programs. Traditionally, much of the private money aimed at young people has supported environmental education, like through curriculum guides and teacher training, and that support, says Nicole Ardoin, a research fellow at the Environmental Grantmakers Association, in New York, appears to be on the wane.

But, she says, the drop may be misleading because grant makers may be redirecting money to areas, like youth advocacy, community gardening, and efforts to promote environmental justice, that could be considered under a broader definition of environmental education.

"They may not be calling it environmental education anymore," says Ms. Ardoin, who is just starting a research project exploring the issue, "but many of these things — like setting up a school garden to show kids where their food comes from — is back-to-nature, teach-kids-about-nature stuff under a different label."
But no matter what grant-making category is used to classify the efforts, the No Child Left Inside brand may invite other challenges to attracting support.

Grant makers that give money to environmental causes often focus on physical threats to the environment, like pollution, or they generally want to have a direct effect, like so many acres preserved.

"Addressing the issue of childhood moving indoors is addressing a very different kind of threat than most funders are used to dealing with," says the National Wildlife Federation's Mr. Coyle. "This is more of a social issue that has to be looked at over a very long timeline, and it is very difficult to measure results in the short term."
Among foundations that support health, the No Child Left Inside programs may feel too limiting or appear to hit wide of the target.

"It's very valuable for kids, especially in urban areas, to have outdoor experiences," says Marion Standish, director of disparities in health at the California Endowment, in Los Angeles. "But from the obesity-prevention perspective, for example, it's not necessarily a strategy for us to focus our resources there. It's only one small piece of the puzzle."

To help attract money and attention to the No Child Left Inside movement, the Conservation Fund, in Arlington, Va., last year created the National Forum on Children and Nature, a group of about 50 governors, mayors, and business and nonprofit leaders.

Forum members plan to pick 20 projects, from among more than 500 applications, that they believe demonstrate the best ways to help kids rediscover nature.
The winners, which will be announced in the fall, will be paired with forum members and members of a special advisory panel, who will help increase the projects' visibility and fund-raising efforts.

In the meantime, the Conservation Fund has started lining up potential supporters for the projects, which will focus on different topics, like education, community planning, and health.

"These projects all have the same goal but will cross sectors in various ways," says Alisa Borland, the Conservation Fund's director of fund raising. "We've only ever dealt with traditional environmental funders, so reaching out in the health sector, in the education sector has been an interesting challenge. Their first reaction is, oh yeah, we don't fund conservation, but if we get our foot in the door we can say this is about school curriculum or this is about neighborhoods."