No child left indoors

So many problems in the world. What can we do about it?

Well, to start with, one of the simplest, cheapest, and most wholesome things one can do is get the kids and yourself off your rear ends and take ‘em outside. Take a walk. Turn over a log (one of my personal favorite nature activities).  Go fishing. Maybe even have a look at the dead possum by the side of the road.

Many of us have a vaguely troubled sense that kids today are less hearty and healthy and well-adjusted than they (we) used to be. Well, now scientific evidence corroborates what we’ve long suspected. Two examples:

eagle1.jpgFirst, after a half century of steady increase, per capita visits to National Parks started to decline in 1988 and have been falling steadily since. Why? A lot has happened in the last 18 years, so it’s difficult to pinpoint the exact cause. But it’s pretty obvious that the kinds of activities people spend their time on has shifted radically, with the dawn of the internet and home video right around the time that park visits stalled and started falling.  A recent study (well, maybe not so recent for the nanosecond-paced blogosphere, but hey, I’m a beginner) found that park visits between 1988 and 2003 were strongly negatively related to time spent with electronic entertainment. In fact, a statistical model that included four such variables (average time spent watching videos, playing video games, surfing the internet, and going to the movies), along with oil prices, explained an astonishing 97.5% of the decline in park visitation. The analysis was able to reject several possible confounding factors, such as availability of vacation time, as explanations. As the authors noted:

“We may be seeing evidence of a fundamental shift away from people’s appreciation of nature (biophilia) to ‘videophilia’. Which we here define as ‘the new human tendency to focus on sedentary activities involving electronic media.’ Such a shift would not bode well for the future of biodiversity conservation.”

Indeed. Various studies show (as does common sense) that people are more likely to appreciate nature and environmental issues if they have had personal experience with it, and that experience sticks best when it starts early in life.

pikachu2.gifThe second example is both whimsical and unsettling, and fits hand-in-glove with the first. Researchers in the UK compared kids’ ability to identify Pokemon characters with that of common local animals and plants. At age 8, kids identified 78% of the Pokemon characters, on average, but only 53% of the real organisms. (Ironically, there was an ad for the “Pokemon official online store” adorning the environmental website Grist earlier today.  What is the world coming to?). The authors comment:

“During their primary school years, children apparently learn far more about Pokemon than about their native wildlife and enter secondary school being able to name less than 50% of common wildlife types. Evidence from elsewhere links loss of knowledge about the natural world to growing isolation from it. People care about what they know.”

My friend and colleague Dr. Margaret Lowman (aka “Canopy Meg”) has written eloquently about the urgent need for, and multifarious rewards of, helping awaken children’s innate curiosity about nature. In fact, she coined the phrase used as the title of this post (see her essay here) and has urged her fellow ecologists to work for the goal of having “no child left indoors” by 2015. The great thing is that you don’t need to be a PhD or an ecologist to make a potentially life-changing difference in young people that can last a lifetime. Just pull the plug and open the door. Now that’s naturally patriotic!

About Emmett Duffy

I am a Natural Patriot and an ecologist with expertise in biodiversity and its importance to human society. My day job is Professor of Marine Science at the College of William and Mary in Virginia.
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3 Responses to No child left indoors

  1. James Douglass says:

    Maybe someone could put some real natural history information into a fun video-game-like format for kids on the internet. Perhaps an easy online checklist of species that kids could “collect” by seeing. Then when they checked them all off the list, they would get a certificate by email or something.

    You would have to use species that any kid could find…

    Grey Squirrel

    House sparrow
    Mallard duck

    Oak tree
    Maple tree
    Pine tree
    Poison ivy


    Carp / koi / goldfish

    Honey Bee


    Just an idea.

  2. James Douglass says:

    Looks like the National Wildlife Federation’s “Ranger Rick” website has some good stuff for kids.

  3. Emmett Duffy says:


    Good idea about the video checklist. This is basically how the old Boy Scout merit badges worked (maybe they still do), without the video part of course. E.O. Wilson has written in his book “The Creation” about how important earning the Boy Scout merit badges were in his childhood and how they gave focus and legitimacy to his innate curiosity and excitement about bugs and other natural stuff. And the rest, of course, is history.