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Children and Nature

Interior Secretary Kempthorne Opens Inaugural Conference on Children and Nature

What has been described as "nature-deficit disorder" by futurist and author Richard Louv formed the starting point for America's most comprehensive look at the growing disconnect between children and their environment at the "Children and Nature" conference that opened September 8 in Shepherdstown, West Virginia.

The conference was hosted by The Conservation Fund and the Interior Department's U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to convene the nation's top conservationists, educators, physicians, homebuilders, and others for answers to warning signs in youngsters summarized by journalist Louv in his bestseller, "Last Child in the Woods/Saving Our Children from Nature-Deficit Disorder." (See book review of Last Child in the Woods) The gathering drew nearly 350 experts to the campus of the Fish and Wildlife Service's National Conservation Training Center; it will continue through Saturday.

Interior Secretary Dirk Kempthorne welcomed the educators, health professionals, business leaders and conservationists to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service’s National Conservation Training Center in Shepherdstown, W.Va., for an inaugural conference on restoring the connection between children and enjoyment of the outdoors.

Sponsored by The Conservation Fund, the National Dialogue on Children and Nature is focusing on outdoor recreation’s positive impact on the health, conservation awareness and character development of children.

“We are here today to light a fire of passion that opens the doors to the great outdoors so children can see, hear, smell, taste and touch nature,” said Kempthorne. “Our children are at risk of losing touch with God’s creation. Fewer children are enjoying the great outdoors. Too many children are overweight and out of shape. Fewer teenagers are out fishing and hunting. Too many teenagers are in windowless basements playing video games where people are the hunted prey.”

“We need to inspire a nation to escape their Blackberries for the satisfaction of actually picking a wild blackberry,” Kempthorne continued. “Children need to be inspired to leave their iPods to see a real pod of whales. Children should take a break from their Podcasts to cast a fly for rainbow trout. Children should interrupt their channel surfing to see the Channel Islands.”

Richard Louv, author of the book “Last Child in the Woods: Saving Our Children from Nature-Deficit Disorder,” gave the keynote speech. Louv discussed his research, finding a child’s interaction with the natural world provides critical health, mental and emotional developmental benefits.

Other notable participants in the conference include David Kahn, executive director of the North American Montessori Teacher’s Association, and Yale University’s Stephen Kellert, who researches the interactions between natural and human-built environments. They will discuss the problems associated with what Louv refers to as “nature deficit disorder” and ways to encourage parents and the children to enjoy the outdoors together.

Kempthorne noted that the Department of Interior is in a unique position to offer quality outdoor experiences to youth and adults alike. The Department manages 501 million acres of public land, about one-fifth of the lands of the United States. Much of it is open to outdoor recreation.

For example, the Bureau of Land Management oversees 3,500 recreation sites that attract 56 million visitors a year. The National Park Service’s 390 units attract 274 million visitors annually. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service’s 545 national wildlife refuges welcome 72.6 million visitors a year, and the Bureau of Reclamation hosts 90 million visitors at its 308 recreation sites a year.

“Government can be a catalyst, an encourager, a motivator and a provider of great places for children to have fun, to exercise and to love the outdoors,” said Kempthorne. “We can reconnect children to nature and develop in them a passion for conserving our parks, refuges, and wildlife.”