Outside Recess

Leave No Child Inside combats childhood obesity, A.D.D. and depression with exposure to the great outdoors

Apr 17, 2013 at 10:48 am

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hild’s perfect day: clear sky, school friends, bikes, some tag, a playground and maybe, if they’re really lucky, a pool. Sounds spot on, right? In today’s plugged-in, digital age, not at all. Instead, try a soda, computer screen, remote control, some chips and a video game console. In fact, statistics show that children currently spend an average of six hours each day in front of the computer and TV but less than four minutes a day in unstructured outdoor play. Richard Louv’s 2005 book Last Child in the Woods: Saving Our Children from Nature-Deficit Disorder linked this “absence of nature” to some of the biggest childhood dilemmas in modern society: obesity, A.D.D. and depression.  

Shortly after publication, the book that started a spark grew into a flame for more than 35 environmental organizations in the Greater Cincinnati area including The Cincinnati Zoo, Cincinnati Parks, Cincinnati Nature Center and Greater Cincinnati Environmental Educators. In 2006, these organizations came together to establish Leave No Child Inside — Greater Cincinnati (LNCI), which describes itself as “a collaboration of individuals and organizations working to connect Greater Cincinnati’s children with nature for their physical, mental and emotional health.” As the first collaborative to come together on this issue in the nation, through their help, more and more kids in Cincinnati — and America — are finally stepping out of the house, away from the TV screen and into the outdoors.

LNCI has initiated some extremely successful projects during its seven years in existence. Its leaders recently coordinated with Cincinnati Public Schools’ “5th Quarter” system, which supports community organized summer learning. LNCI organized 5th Quarter’s enrichment program and educated childcare teachers and directors in order to help them help kids experience nature every day through activities such as outdoor learning or nature-based field trips.  

“Because 55 percent of kids under the age of 6 are in childcare, we wanted to get the message out about children and nature, and also help instructors, teachers and schools to rethink the designs of their facilities,” Betsy Townsend, co-chair of LNCI, says about the 5th Quarter project. “We gave them examples from a really small to a really large scale.” 

Other projects include Cincinnati’s Public Schools’ “Safe Route to School” program, as well as area organizations’ work to create a program called “Nearby Nature.” The Safe Route to School program engages the community, teachers and parents in creating safe routes for children to walk or bike to school by identifying green space as well as facilitating volunteer trail construction. This not only gets kids moving, but also reduces transportation costs and improves neighborhoods. 

Nearby Nature is another LNCI collaborative project that has worked to ensure kids have access to nature every day. “Not all schools have green space, and some have only a wide-open lawn with no shade,” Townsend says. “So, to enable enrichment activities to take place outdoors, many of our partners make their locations available for school outreach programs.” In the Greater Cincinnati area, LNCI has identified more than 40 new outdoor play spaces for children that have been created during the past five years.  

Along with their past successes, the members of LNCI have instituted some new collaborations and seen some new establishments throughout the area that they are especially excited about. The Green Umbrella is an association that defines itself as “an alliance of organizations in the Ohio, Kentucky and Indiana Tristate region working to preserve the region’s green space.” They have action teams that put an emphasis on specific areas of sustainability: energy conservation and efficiency, land, local food, renewable energy, transportation, waste reduction, water and, the item the LNCI is specifically excited about, outdoor recreation and nature awareness.   

“The outdoor recreation and nature awareness program helps people who already like nature to figure out where to go to get more of it,” says Connie O’Connor, education director of the Cincinnati Nature Center. “And also help people who might not know how important nature is see how valuable it can be in their lives.”

“Meet Me Outdoors” is a Green Umbrella action team dedicated to raising outdoor and nature awareness. Realizing all of the objective similarities, LNCI and Meet Me Outdoors are now collaborating to create the website, meetmeoutdoors.org, which will soon list all outdoor activities and happenings throughout the region.

The effect that Last Child in the Woods had on Townsend and other members of LNCI was, no doubt, revolutionizing. A stepmother, Townsend could see firsthand the influence that lack of outside play had on a child, and she strived to make a change.  

“I observed the changes in childhood from when I was a child, and I was worried about it,” Townsend says. “After reading this book I decided that people need to know — need to know what this absence of nature is related to, and that a huge change had to be made. Being a stepparent, I needed hard, statistical proof to show that this type of change would be good. And that’s exactly what this book gave me. ... 

I just want people to realize that every single person — whether parent, grandparent, Sunday school teacher — can get their child out and can spread the message. It just starts with one.”

For more information, visit lncigc.org.