Article submitted by Cynthia Lane, MD, Board Member of San Diego Children and Nature
The school garden at Gage Elementary is a magical experience for my grandson’s first grade classmates. Every Tuesday they spend time planting, weeding, watering and inspecting their peas, carrots, radishes, sweet potatoes and butterfly garden. Recently one little girl came running up to me flush with excitement, exclaiming “Hurry up, come quick, I discovered a miracle!” Some sunflower seeds had sprouted and the seed casing of one was still hanging from the first leaves. There are so many little miracles waiting to be discovered in a child’s garden.
In a time when outdoor nature play has been largely replaced by supervised activities and indoor electronic media, we are faced with the challenge of raising a new generation of environmental stewards. If we allow a generation to grow up disconnected from nature, who will be the future environmentalists?
We have a compelling responsibility to create an environment in which our children have opportunities to experience the joy of immersion in the natural world, to discover their own little miracles. These childhood experiences are the seeds of tomorrow’s environmental stewardship. I know some first graders who are in love with their garden, and that is a beginning.
While domestic nature experiences, like gardening, picking flowers or planting seeds are linked to adult positive attitudes about environmental protection, a study by Well and Liekes concluded that childhood experiences like hiking, camping, or playing in the woods are much more influential. From our beaches and wetlands, canyons, mountain forests, and desert, and more animal species than any other county in the U.S., San Diego County residents live in a biodiversity hotspot. We can celebrate our abundance of natural parks, including Mission Trails Park, the largest urban park in the state. Combining our wealth of natural resources and extraordinarily fair weather, we in San Diego have the ingredients for creating the best place in the country for childhood nature experiences. We need to get our children out there!
Aside from the importance of inspiring the next generation of environmentalists, our children have a more immediate need for more outdoor and nature play. Childhood outdoor time has significantly decreased over the last 50 years, being replaced by huge amounts of time spent indoors using electronic entertainment media, averaging 7.5 hours daily for children aged 8 – 18. Electronic screen time for two or more hours a day is associated with higher anxiety and depression rates; time spent in green spaces, on the other hand, reduces anxiety and depression symptoms.
We can improve our children’s health and happiness now, and grow new environmental stewards for tomorrow, by getting our children out in nature today. By protecting our parks and wild areas, developing green schoolyards and neighborhoods, encouraging parents to set limits on screen time, and promoting more time in outdoor and nature play, we can continue to work on making San Diego the best place in the country to reunite children with nature!