Op-Ed

Are we raising a generation of nature-phobic kids?

The childhood I had wandering through the woods and fields near my home unsupervised from morning until dark today seems like a lost world. Many children now spend less than 30 minutes per week playing outside.

It’s not just kids and their preoccupation with iPads and video games, or busy streets and “stranger danger” that is fueling the disinclination to get outdoors. It’s a widespread phenomenon. Grown-ups fare little better. Statistics from the Environmental Protection Agency suggest that adults, too, spend 93% of their lives inside buildings or vehicles, living under what nature writer Richard Louv calls “protective house arrest.”

Are we as Americans actually losing our connection to the outdoors? Conservation ecologist Patricia Zaradic of the Environmental Leadership Program and conservation biologist Oliver Pergams of the University of Illinois at Chicago have documented a disturbing trend of declining per-capita visits to national parks and forests, drops in hunting and fishing licenses, and other sliding indicators of nature recreation since the late 1980s. They see at work a fundamental cultural shift away from nature.

Other researchers and environmental psychologists think these trends are, in some cases, even rising to the level of an unreasonable phobia. A growing number of Americans, they say, are suffering from “biophobia,” a “prejudice against nature,” or what the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders categorizes as “natural environment phobia.”

Biophobia research traditionally focused on specific categories of fears — such as darkness, heights or animals, especially snakes and spiders. Recently, however, researchers whose findings were published in the Journal of Environmental Psychology discovered that modern-day fears of the natural world have no such locus. In children especially, anxiety can be evoked by the most unexceptional circumstances: a flock of noisy birds or a strong wind.

Ashley Inslee, a biologist at Bosque del Apache Refuge in New Mexico, has observed this firsthand. “We’re seeing more kids sheltered and afraid,” she said in an interview with Care2, a social network for activists. “Even college kids interested in conservation haven’t been out hunting, fishing, hiking.” 

Humans are “biologically prepared” through natural selection to be fearful of objects and situations that can threaten our survival. And those certainly do exist in the wild. Two summers ago, when my daughter and I backpacked over Alaska’s Brooks Range and canoed out to the Arctic Ocean, we were scared sometimes. In 20 million acres of wilderness, far from anything resembling help, we encountered grizzlies and one bold polar bear, Class III + rapids, and the kind of weather that, if one is not prepared, can kill. But those fears had real and concrete causes. This spreading indiscriminate aversion to nature in general is something new.

After reviewing the scientific literature in 2010, a group of psychologists making recommendations for the DSM-V determined that 82% of the people diagnosed with natural environment phobia exhibited a preoccupation with the “danger or harm” they might experience in nature. The group also noted that kids suffering from natural environment phobia also had higher rates of general anxiety disorder and depression.

How did we get to the point where reasonable fears — say about a mountain lion seen near a running trail — blow up into generalized phobias about nature? How did parents who freely wandered outside become so anxious about their kids doing the same? Surely, we as parents are complicit in our kids’ giving the wonder of the outdoors the cold shoulder.

One of the great American conservationists, Aldo Leopold, knew something about getting his children outside. The Leopolds kept a “shack,” a rebuilt chicken coop, on land along the Wisconsin River. I recently took a guided tour of Leopold’s simple shack and noted that this was a location for family getaways. It’s one of the things that distinguished him from the solitary Henry David Thoreau. Leopold and his wife, Estella, and their five kids fished, hunted, explored, tended a garden, cut firewood, restored native prairie and planted trees — together. Leopold and Estella certainly had never heard of natural environment phobia, but they did notice that when their children returned from their outings, they were physically and emotionally renewed by their contact with the outside world. They were happier.

A growing body of evidence corroborates the Leopolds’ observation that daily "green exercise" can produce rapid improvements in mental well-being and self-esteem; boost problem-solving skills, cooperation, focus and self-discipline; and reduce aggression.

In our family, my wife and I have witnessed the benefits of nature firsthand. We’ve tried to make the outdoors central to our daughters’ lives. It wasn’t always easy. Often, especially when they were young, they’d grumble about going for a hike. But when we returned home, they had a bounce in their step. The combination of fresh air and the sense of accomplishment had performed its mood-enhancing magic.

Perhaps more parents should take a lesson from the Leopolds. Though most of us do not have our own riverfront land, we can find a nearby park or a trail. Getting outside and breaking the stranglehold of electronics — on ourselves as much as our kids — requires a concerted effort. And yet it’s worth it to make room for nature in our lives, especially as parents. By spending time in nature with our children, we teach them that we value two things: being with them and the natural world.

James Campbell is the author of “Braving It: A Father, A Daughter, and an Unforgettable Journey into the Alaskan Wild” and “The Final Frontiersman: Heimo Korth and His Family, Alone in Alaska’s Wilderness.”

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