A Playdate with Nature: Both Young and Old Can Connect with the Environment-And Each Other-In Meaningful Ways

Article excerpt

The demands and distractions of modern society are preventing too many of us from appreciating nature. Constraints on our time and fear of danger keep us indoors. Children spend more time doing homework and playing organized sports than they do in unstructured play, while parents spend more time commuting- a result of changes to the built environment and sprawl.

When many of us were young, we played outside until we were called in for lunch or dinner. But times are different and we need to evolve to improve the health and well-being of all generations. "No Child or Elder Left Inside" (a play on the No Child Left Inside Act, which would make environmental education an integral part of American elementary school curriculum, and was introduced to Congress this past July) must be the response to address the epidemic of obesity and lack of outdoor exploration.

Elders have an opportunity to share their knowledge of the environment with children, and reminisce about changes that have occurred during their lifetime. This interaction is rewarding for both generations. Elders can help get children off the couch, away from computer games and into communities where they learn to appreciate parks, woods and open spaces.

Richard Louv, author of Last Child in the Woods, called our reduced interaction with the outdoors "nature deficit disorder," and directly linked it to the increase in childhood obesity, Attention Deficit Disorder and depression.

The Need for Nature Is Ageless and Timeless

While only a few studies have examined the benefits of contact with nature, a number of them suggest improvements in social ties and a sense of community (Green Common Spaces and the Social Integration of Inner-City Older Adults, 1998, http://eab.sagepub.com/content/ 30/6/832. abstract); improved selfreported well-being (Residential Landscapes: Their Contribution to the Quality of Older People's Lives, 1997); and higher self-reported satisfaction (Benefits of Nearby Nature for Elderly Apartment Residents, 1991, www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/ pubmed/1955207).

A 2010 study at Portland State University, funded by the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), demonstrated the benefits of green streets. Green streets incorporate the natural landscape (absorbing storm water) and accommodate multiple travel modes, like walking and biking. The study found green streets may have positive effects on walking, and are also associated with higher levels of social interaction. In one intervention site, residents were more likely to observe children playing outside and said their neighborhood was a better place to live (www.epa. gov/aging/grants/winners/psii-greenstreetsuactive^aging^report. …