“Nature Deficit Disorder” and “Leave No Child Inside” are not just plays on words.
They represent trends where children are spending less time outdoors — usually watching TV, playing video games or sitting in front of computers — than they do outdoors playing and exploring.
Recent studies show the drift indoors can disrupt children’s’ ability to connect with nature and reap the bounty of health benefits that go with outdoor play.
Among those who have taken notice of the trend is Michael Rose. Oddly enough, he makes his living with technology, doing Web development multimedia projects.
Rose says he noticed the trend of children spending more time indoors and apart from nature after moving to Payson.
“Our family does a lot of hiking and exploring,” he said. “When I asked my children’s friends if they had been to certain places like The Boulders or Water Wheel, they’d say ‘No. Where’s that?’”
At first, Rose thought it was odd that local children hadn’t visited some of the Rim Country’s most appealing outdoor recreational sites.
“The more I spoke with children, the more I understood their exposure to technology was so pervasive that it excluded them from other kinds of experiences,” he said. “Some children grow up having no intimate connection to nature.”
Rose is concerned the phenomenon of Nature Deficit Disorder will have profound implications on future generations.
“It can affect children’s overall health, we all have stories of how nature touched our lives as children because we grew up prior to technology,” he said.
Alarmed with how children’s relationships to the natural world had changed radically, Rose formed what he calls Geo-Kidz, which he hopes will ignite children’s interest in the outdoors.
His program is currently in use by the Town of Payson’s summer youth program, which began June 1 and will continue until June 18. A second session will be held June 29 to July 16.
The group meets from 8 a.m. to noon, Monday through Thursday. The first- through third-graders meet at Rim Country Middle School and fourth- through sixth-graders gather at Julia Randall Elementary School.
Rose says developing the curriculum for Geo-Kidz was a challenge because, “I wanted a structured program about unstructured play — (to) allow children to move in their own direction, but safely.”
What he wanted was to let nature do its work in raising children.
With the founding of Geo-Kidz, Rose’s goal is to get children outside and actively learning through a series of short hikes, explorations, games and other outdoor challenges.
“We visit Water Wheel, hike The Boulders and visit a (paleontology) site near Tonto Village,” Rose said. “Anything to get an immediate connection to nature.”
Among those impressed with Geo-Kidz is town Outdoor Trails and Recreation Coordinator Mary McMullen.
“We are so fortunate to have it as part of our summer recreation program,” she said.
“The kids are excited and (Geo-Kidz) encourages them to explore their own natural world.”
McMullen also says the program is certain to benefit physical fitness and long-term mental and spiritual well-being.
A 2005 study by Richard Louv, which he wrote about in his book “Last Child in the Woods,” seems to lend validity to Rose’s contention that children need to connect with nature.
Louv states that some positive effects of outdoor play are increased attention spans, stress reduction, improved creativity, better cognitive development and building a sense of wonder and connection to the earth.
Rose also contends outdoors education can also help in the fight against childhood obesity and drug addiction.
In Chicago, a wilderness program similar to Geo-Kidz, called Leave No Child Inside, is popular with city children.
Organizers say the goal of the program is to get children outside to “skim stones, count butterflies or go fishing.”
It promotes parents taking their children outside and letting them take the lead – with their natural curiosity.
Leave No Child Inside studies show participation in outdoor activities in natural settings increases self-esteem, decreases attention-deficit disorder symptoms and contributes to the emotional and physical development of children.
With Geo-Kidz now ingrained in Payson town summer programs, Rose’s goal is to offer it next year as an after-school activity in the three local elementary schools: Frontier, Julia Randall and Payson elementary schools.
He says the lone remaining obstacle is securing the money needed to lease buses to transport the children to sites around the Rim Country.
So, he has formed a not-for-profit corporation and will soon begin soliciting donations for leasing fees.
And while he’s doing that, Rose hopes children can somehow find their way to yesteryear when boys and girls ruled the Rim Country’s woods playing hide-n-seek, building secret forts, chasing lizards, climbing trees and letting their imaginations run wild.