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Nature: Our most effective antidote

The average full-time American worker spends roughly 49 grueling hours a week on the job. Now, imagine forcing a kid to sit at a computer desk for that same amount of time. There would be a public outcry, not to mention the handcuff potential from enforcers of the nation’s child labor laws.

That said, a recent report from the Kaiser Family Foundation puts the number of hours that kids spend per week using electronic media at a staggering 53 hours. Yes, the time is voluntary and much of it is mobile media, so kids aren’t exactly chained to desks, but they are spending four hours more engrossed in media than the average worker spends pulling down a paycheck. If that’s the case, what are children losing while tuned in to that all-consuming electronic nether-world?

Children are losing the opportunity reconnecting in their everyday lives to the natural world. It is important for their well-being to have access to the natural environment.

Most parents are well-intentioned and really want to do what’s best for their children. However, people have not realized that to have too much in the way of electronic media diminishes their children’s creativity. Some use of electronic media is generally okay, but not for the youngest of kids and even as kids get a bit older there are very small amounts of time that are appropriate.

Indeed. For all the time spent engaged to electronic media, there is a well-oiled marketing campaign worth billions of dollars spoon-feeding children (and as a result, their parents) with information designed to influence the way families spend more. To say that it is effective marketing would be a gross understatement. A New York Times story revealed the average American family spends just shy of $1,000 per person on electronic media annually.

Despite educational merit and indisputable enjoyable content, children’s lives today, for many, are out of balance and too tied to electronics — to the detriment of their own decision-making abilities. We’ll go lot farther for their health and well being if we include rich, natural elements in their lives.

The statistics are out there: restlessness, inability to pay attention, obesity, diabetes, depression, bullying and violence. Yet, for every malady plaguing school children, there are volumes of research backing up that time playing in nature is the simplest, most effective antidote we have.

How do we inspire parents to increase the awareness for children’s need for nature and to give children greater access to the natural world? Have you noticed the disparities between the amounts of time children used to have in nature to what they do today?

The old sitcom joke of an exasperated mother forcing her little boy to empty his pockets of rocks, bugs, frogs and snakes before dinner is now a sad reminder of what kids are losing out on. How many contemporary children can say they have caught and kept a frog? Or can say they’ve even touched a frog for that matter.

Children growing up in Pagosa aren’t as badly handicapped, as there are countless and easily accessible means to put them in touch with the natural environment. Any warm afternoon, which are getting fewer and fewer, in Town Park will have you smiling just to see the little kids playing along the edge of the river and the older children bobbing down the river in inner tubes. And during the winter, the children, big and small, love sledding on Reservoir Hill. The outdoor play options are plentiful and free.

Dare I come out publicly and say that I feel sad for the children who haven’t had the chance to feel the tug and pull of water’s current, the cool slipperiness of wet river rocks or the suction that a river bed makes on your feet. I want to tell the parents that an indoor, chlorinated pool is a poor substitute.

When confronted with the usual, “What is there for children to do here?” I have started wondering if the adults are also lacking in imagination. Do they know how deeply scented the woods are on a hot summer afternoon? Do they not remember how, as children, they loved the sense of freedom that comes from racing down a trail?

When was the last time you took your children for a hike in our surrounding forests? Talk and look for birds, insects, animal tracks. Teach them to recognize wildflowers by name. Golly, the list is endless.

Several weeks ago, Rosie Graveson, a Pagosa SUN high school intern, wrote a revealing article about teens and boredom. Good on you, Rosie. “There’s really no excuse,” as you said.

So, if things are out of balance, perhaps a touchstone for harmonizing children with their former, muddied selves would be making natural elements part of a collective design for living. And we are ever so well positioned for that. We are surrounded by natural play spaces — unlike our citified cousins who have to artificially create such spaces or drive great distances to get to such spaces.