Imagine a world where children spend as much time in nature as they do on mobile devices.
That’s the world the Children & Nature Network is helping create for families. The organization believes it’s possible to reconnect kids to nature – and is taking the steps to make it happen.
The Children & Nature Network began in 2006, spurred by the thinking of Richard Louv, an author who coined the term “nature-deficit disorder” in his book “Last Child in the Woods,” and sparked the worldwide children and nature movement. While not a medical diagnosis, nature-deficit disorder describes the effects that disconnecting from nature has on humans. This disorder translates into trouble paying attention, obesity and higher rates of emotional and physical illnesses.
Unfortunately, our children are experiencing some of the highest rates of these effects than ever before. They’re becoming high risk for the diseases and disorders that greater access to green spaces can actually improve. And children of color and those from lower-income families generally have less access than those from higher income or white families, and proportionately benefit more from exposure to green spaces.
A worldwide movement to reconnect kids to nature
That’s why the Children & Nature Network, a nonprofit whose mission is to fuel a worldwide grassroots movement to reconnect children with nature, focuses on how to increase kids’ time in nature as a way to improve children’s health and well-being.
A key to its success: collaborating with other committed organizations and grassroots leaders to focus everyone’s efforts around this critical issue. “We are always looking for new and innovative approaches to stitch together grassroots efforts for greater collective impact,” says executive director Sarah Milligan-Toffler.
Projects include Family Nature Clubs, a grant partnership with the Association of Zoos and Aquariums that brings families together through nature play, and the Natural Leaders Legacy Initiative, which provides training and mentorship to prepare young adults from diverse backgrounds to create lasting change. Through a partnership with the National League of Cities, the organization also engages local leaders to increase nature access for low-income communities.
“We want to go from a place where the vast majority of public schoolyards in America do not have any greenspace to a place where the majority do,” explains Milligan-Toffler.
Bringing nature to the schoolyard helps kids learn
Research suggests that the creation of nature-rich urban environments, including schoolyards with natural play spaces and gardens, can help improve physical and mental health, cognitive skills, creativity and social bonding. But most kids – particularly low-income kids – attend schools without any kind of natural outdoor learning area or greenspace.
The Children & Nature Network is working to change this, to ensure that every community has access to greenspace in schoolyards. The organization believes this simple action could have a lasting impact. “Children having the opportunity to learn outside is so critical to their health and well-being and ability to engage successfully in school,” says Milligan-Toffler.
To spread the word, the organization will release recommendations gathered in the field through “Building a National Movement for Green Schoolyards in Every Community,” a W.K. Kellogg Foundation-funded report that provides a roadmap for growing the green schoolyard movement. The report reveals that people from all walks of life want more green schoolyards. From early childhood educators, teachers and parents, to health care providers, to parks and recreation experts and urban planners – they’re all looking for ways to make this happen.
“Pockets of great work have been happening for years. What’s needed now is a collective strategy. This report is a culmination of what getting organized looks like,” says Milligan-Toffler.
The movement needs to grow to succeed
To spur this effort along, the Children & Nature Network plans to use its report as a framework for inspiring a much larger movement. “There is a tipping point right now. In the field, those who have been doing this work for a long time are ready to see it grow at a faster rate and interest is growing in areas like public health and local government,” explains Margaret Lamar, the organization’s director of strategic initiatives.
Children & Nature Network stresses that this movement is not just about environmentalists and naturalists, as it was previously. This movement is now relevant to everyone.
“Our role is to be the conveners, the research gatherers and the innovators,” Milligan-Toffler explains. “There are incredible leaders doing amazing work in this space, and we are invested in their success.”
That success is key to extending the work of the Children & Nature Network – and ensuring all children have the opportunity to connect with the natural world in their everyday lives.