Fueled by the lure of electronic toys and parental fears about outdoor dangers, today's children are spending too much time indoors, experts say, missing an opportunity to learn about -- and appreciate -- the environment.
Take 6-year-old Benji Margolius of Bellevue, for example. While he enjoyed a nice vacation to Whistler, B.C., last summer, Benji confessed to being homesick: "I missed my PlayStation and computer."
According to a study released in March by the Kaiser Family Foundation, kids 8-18 spend about 44 1/2 hours a week plugged in to electronics, even multi-tasking by using more than one electronic device at a time.
"It is not so much the lack of occasional time outside, but the lack of a meaningful connection to nature that's the problem -- and urban kids seem most at risk," says Frank Hein, program and education technology manager at the Woodland Park Zoo in Seattle.
To address this issue, the zoo is building Zoomazium, an 8,500-square-foot indoor-outdoor nature play space scheduled to open in the spring. Hoping to encourage unstructured outdoor play, the space will include a wooded lot where kids can explore nature on their own terms. Hein is hoping this will be a springboard for parents to appreciate the value in this type of play. "Maybe once the parents see how much the kids love spending time in nature, they will make more time for it," he says.
The indoor aspect is also designed to draw more visitors in the winter. "We reach a lot of kids, but it is mostly in the months when there's nicer weather and it's light longer. It would be really great to get the long-term exposure and have kids connecting with nature on a regular basis year-round," Hein says.
Pockets of outdoor experiences are readily available throughout the Puget Sound, from small nature trails to the Mercer Slough in Bellevue, a 320-acre urban wetland.
The Mercer Slough Environmental Education Center, created through a partnership between the Pacific Science Center and Bellevue Parks and Community Services, offers outdoor classes and experiences year-round for kids and families, including a haunted hike in late October and snowshoe science programs in the winter. In the summer, kids in kindergarten through fourth grade experience nature in the Mud, Muck and Goo class, or the Science of Yuck camp.
"It is about really delving into nature and getting kids excited," says Apryl Brinkley, program supervisor for the Education Center. "We are trying to create that fun feeling about getting dirty and get them out of the 'Oh, that is gross,' mindset to 'Oh, that is cool.'"
While a variety of issues keep people inside, experts say parents need to be more intentional about getting their kids outdoors. In addition to putting elementary-age children in touch with nature, recent studies show that outdoor experiences provide kids with a variety of health and social benefits, including a boost in grades, higher self-esteem, greater cooperation, improved social skills and a reduction in ADHD symptoms.
Susan Ewbank, a Seattle photographer and mother of two children ages 9 and 7, says it is also about setting an example for her kids, who are involved in the Heron Habitat Helpers, a restoration project near Seattle's Discovery Park. Beginning in the fall, the Ewbank family spends one Saturday a month at work parties shoveling wood chips, digging and planting, but Ewbank says she has never forced her kids to join in the work.
"We don't tell them to grab a shovel, but they do. It is about exposing them, but not forcing them -- and they have become very proud of what they have done," says Ewbank, who adds that her kids enjoy seeing the heron arrive and build nests every February.
The Ewbanks value time outdoors and also take their kids camping. "They are away from the TV and computer; they are in a world where they can pretend. They also learn to appreciate the wilderness and animals in nature," Ewbank says. "My daughter is 9 and she has the global concept. It gives them a bigger picture of how the earth and nature work."
Tori and Matt Gimple of Bellevue choose not to have video games in their home, although their three children -- ages 10, 8 and 6 -- are allowed to play the games at friends' houses.
"I don't see the educational value in them," explains Tori Gimple, a preschool teacher who views the time they would spend on video games better spent reading, riding bikes, going outside or playing board games. "These activities stimulate their mind, body, creativity and social skills. They help them become more well-rounded," she says.
The Gimples make time outdoors a part of their lifestyle. Their children are involved in Cub and Girl Scouts, the family goes sailing together and their vacations typically include outdoor experiences.
On a recent trip to Alaska, they participated in a National Forest Service activity about "forest first aid," where they had to match items in a modern first aid kit with traditional plants used by Native Alaskans.
"The nice thing about going outdoors is it is free," she adds. "You pack a picnic lunch, jump in the car and you are there."
Jolene Gensheimer, a Bellevue-based freelance writer and mother of two, is expecting her third child in early October.
- Pacific Science Center: 206-443-2925, www.pacsci.org -- scroll to "camps and workshops' then click on Mercer Slough for information about programs.
- Woodland Park Zoo: 206-684-4800, www.zoo.org
- IslandWood: 206-855-4300, www.islandwood.org -- includes information about school, community and summer programs aimed at providing hands-on environmental education for kids and adults at a 255-acre outdoor learning center on Bainbridge Island.
- Heron Helpers: 206-284-6489, www.heronhelpers.org -- Information about the Heron Habitat Helpers restoration project.
- National Forest Service: www.fs.fed.us -- Web site has a 'Just for Kids' section.
- National Park Service: www.nps.gov -- click on 'Interpretation and Education' for information about the Junior Rangers program.
- Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife Program: Go Play Outside Program, www.wdfw.wa.gov/gpo -- includes clinics and activities.
- Boy Scouts of America: www.scouting.org -- click on Cub Scouts, which is designed for boys in the 1st-5th grade.
- Girl Scouts: www.girlscouts.org -- site for Girl Scouts with information about finding a local council.
- Camp Fire USA: www.campfire.org -- site for the coeducational Camp Fire USA with information about finding a local council.
- Adventures West: 206-783-1396, www.awtrips.com -- offers outdoor family adventures.
- Issaquah Salmon Hatchery: 425-392-8025, www.issaquahfish.org -- open year-round for visitors. Offers a Scout Program with winter classes for groups of seven or more (not limited to Boy and Girl Scouts).