Richard Louv’s Last Child in the Woods: Saving Our Children from Nature-Deficit Disorder (2008) articulated and heightened my general alarm that kids just weren’t getting outside as much. I knew the trend was not positive, with backlit screens outcompeting the outdoors for children’s attention, compounded by overprotective parents who increasingly see the outside as dangerous.
In my day (said the increasingly geezerish me), kids walked to and from school and were outdoors often until dark. Yes, we were sometimes mischievous, but we were getting fresh air, bright sunshine, and—what I later came to appreciate—nature. According to a recent report from REI, “Today, some kids would rather do chores or homework than spend time outdoors.”
Sobering Facts from REI
“Research has shown that if children don’t develop a sense of respect and care for nature during their first few years, they’re at risk of never developing such values,” REI goes on to say in its October 2017 report, The Path Ahead: The Future of Life Outdoors (Figure 1). The iconic purveyor of outdoor equipment has sounded the alarm with a new campaign for our species and for nature. Ironically but effectively, the company is using screen-savvy social media techniques to posit the notion that humans have become an indoor species. The campaign outlines the dangers this trend poses and what to do about it.
A short video (forty-four seconds: “The Long March Indoors”) dramatizes the situation, and a short booklet (nine chapters, thirty-five pages: The Path Ahead: The Future of Life Outdoors) compellingly makes the case with evidence (ninety-nine endnotes rest quietly in the back pages). With images and factual prose, the report defines and documents the problems of being an indoor species and then offers solutions to the personal, family, societal, and natural imbalances that plague us. It describes two paths: stay inside or #OptOutside (social media savvy!).
“The average American spends 95 percent of their life indoors,” says the REI report, with an endnote documenting the source of this sobering fact. I did the math: 8.4 hours outside per week, 1.2 hours outside per day. For kids it’s even less.
Here is a selection of some of the highlights I made on my copy (the pamphlet is worth a close read):
• “Today, kids spend less time outside than prison inmates, with the average child playing freely outside for just four to seven minutes a day.”
• “Lack of time spent outdoors is linked to issues like anxiety, childhood obesity, academic underperformance and even bullying.”
• “Between 2010 and 2014, an average of 33,000 people per year left rural areas in the U.S.”
• “Seventy-five percent of Americans who get paid time off don’t take all of their vacation days, fearing, among other things, losing their job.”
• “Office workers might be shocked to learn that people who spend four or more hours sitting per day more than double their risk of heart disease and that they face a 50 percent increased risk of death from any cause.”
• “Studies show that when people are suffering from mental health disorders such as depression and anxiety, interacting with nature can help them control their symptoms or even recover, when time outside is ‘prescribed’ along with conventional medication.”
A Better Path
Along with the doom and the resultant gloom, the REI report offers optimism in proposing a better path. To #OptOutside, the REI report offers examples of hope and a multitude of suggestions. For instance, “Imagine if we reduced the barriers to getting from city to country and brought more of the outdoors into our cities. . . . Imagine if parking lots were converted to parks, rooftops to gardens and derelict land to open fields. What if there was green, outdoor space 1,000 feet from every American?”
In the original—and thoughtfully planned—part of Savannah, Georgia, a multitude of full blocks are reserved as mini-parks of large and old live oak and other trees, each block strategically positioned to be no more than two blocks from any house. Of course, as one gets farther away from the original platted lands, the mini-parks thin out to nothing, as the rest of the town is soulless sprawl like so much of America.
The REI report preaches a better path, often giving scientific evidence supporting itsrecommendations.
As a society, we should be spending more on access to hiking and biking trails and less on pills and treadmills. Getting outside is good for body and mind. A walk outside lowers stress and reduces inflammation, which is the cause of many diseases. And the feeling of awe we get while experiencing nature is also proven to promote creativity, empathy and generosity toward each other. An investigation by researchers from the University of California indicated that awe diminishes the emphasis on the individual self and, therefore, may encourage people to improve the welfare of others.
Kudos to REI
Embarking on this campaign to reverse the species retreat indoors is a remarkable act of public service. Obviously, the campaign coincides with REI’s self-interest. However, though a retail giant, REI is a co-op beholden to its members rather than to the profit-maximizing demands of shareholders. REI closes its stores and gives its employees a paid day off on Black Friday, the mega-extreme shopping day after Thanksgiving. REI also gives significant sums to conservation organizations.
(I’ve been an REI member since the early 1970s and have been accused of buying too many of my clothes there. While I heartily recommend that others become members, REI could do more. REI should find new bankers and credit card partners who don’t finance things like the Dakota Access Pipeline.)
The Decline of Golf and the Importance of Public Lands
I never thought I would lament the decline of golf. After all, the second death pact of perhaps a dozen I have made since sometime just after puberty stipulates that if either of us ever takes up golf, the other will have to kill him (it’s about more than just the loud pants). However, I do lament that golfing in America is seriously on the decline, because it is another indicator of humans becoming an indoor species (Figure 2).
REI didn’t mention the decline of golf, probably because it doesn’t sell golf equipment. When it does, we’ll know REI is desperately trying to grab market share in a desperately declining outdoor industry.
For people to #OptOutside, there must be public lands.
By “public lands,” I mean not only the federal public lands on which this blog often focuses but also state, county, city, and other publicly owned lands dedicated to nature conservation and/or outdoor recreation. All public lands, from pristine wilderness (Figure 3) to a tree-covered city block (Figure 4), are important. We don’t have enough of either and all in between.
If we’re going to get more public lands, as well as keep what we have, it will be because people value them. Public lands need people enjoying them, because to know them is to value them. So pull yourself—and just as important, other people—away from that damn screen and go outside for a walk.