A Field Guide to Preserving Childhood

By Peg L. Smith, CEO, American Camp Association

It is commonly said that it takes an entire village to raise strong, healthy children. Yes, it takes a village of people to raise a child, but it also takes the village itself.

A hundred years ago, homes were in villages or cabins in the woods. People were surrounded by wide-open spaces with green as far as the eye could see. That is not the case now, the "village" has changed.

What have we forgotten?
For generations, children grew up outside. They walked to school, rode their bikes, and walked barefoot through the grass. Childhood was characterized by innocence, imagination, wonder, and laughter. Being inside all day was torturous.

According to a 2005 study conducted by the Kaiser Family Foundation, today's children spend over five hours each day plugged into some kind of electronic medium. That's more time than they spend doing anything else besides sleeping. There's mounting evidence that all this electronic input is affecting our children's ability to think for themselves.

In addition, exercise is a forgotten practice. A new term has been coined for the world's weight problem: "globesity." An estimated 22 million of the world's children under the age of five are already considered obese.

According to Richard Louv, author of Last Child in the Woods, society is sending kids a message: "Nature is the past, electronics are the future, and the bogeyman lives in the woods."

It's impossible to remove a child from nature without consequences. Louv explains that when nature is replaced with a constant barrage of television and computers, the use of a child's senses is reduced to the size of the screen they stare at day in and day out, becoming packaged and limited.

What do we know?
When nature and play go hand in hand, they have a profound impact on the health and development of children on the road to adulthood.

The American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) says, "Play is essential to development as it contributes to the cognitive, physical, social, and emotional well-being of children and youth." The AAP also reports that, "Play is so important to optimal child development that it has been recognized by the United Nations High Commission for Human Rights as a right of every child."

A study at the University of Essex in England concluded that nature helps recovery from pre-existing stresses or problems, has an immunizing effect that protects from future stresses, and helps concentration and thought clarity.

With TV, computers, cell phones, and iPods®, children are exposed every day to more images and ads than they can possibly process. It's no wonder kids today are stressed out.

If you watch as much TV as the developed world's children, you may be under the impression that the world is full of crack addicts and pedophiles. Writer Rosa Brooks said, "Forget the television fear-mongering: Your child stands about the same chance of being struck by lightning as of being the victim of what the U.S. Department of Justice calls a ‘stereotypical kidnapping.' And unless you live in Baghdad, your child stands a much, much greater chance of being killed in a car accident than of being seriously harmed while wandering around your neighborhood."

Where are we headed?
According to the American Public Health Association, "The retreat indoors for many children has environmental advocates worried that children who grow up without memories of fishing in a local stream or hiking through idyllic woods might become adults for whom conserving the environment isn't a priority."

A "Call to Action" petition was sent recently to the Surgeon General stating, "Regardless of age, being in nature helps us lower our stress levels, get exercise, and relax our minds. For children, contact with green space and natural settings improves their ability to learn, hones their agility and balance and can significantly calm those with anxiety and mood disorders. And, a childhood connection with the outdoors can lead to a lifelong ethic of respect for a clean and healthy environment."

What must we do?
There needs to be an awareness that a child's life without the benefit of nature is lacking an essential component. There is a risk seeing a failure to thrive in adolescents if they are deprived of critical developmental opportunities.

It is essential that children are introduced back to the natural world. There is nothing more precious than childhood; it is a right, a time of discovery and exploration. And camp fits exquisitely into that equation.

Peg L. Smith is the chief executive officer of the American Camp Association.

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