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Public Radio's Environmental News Magazine (follow us on Google News)

Plugging Kids Into the Great Outdoors

Air Date: Week of

Is your kids’ nature deficit disorder getting you down? Commentator Bonnie Auslander thinks she may have the right prescription for getting children outside.


GELLERMAN: Now that warm weather is finally here, hikers are beginning to hit the trails. But what if hiking isn’t a hit with your kids? Commentator Bonnie Auslander has some advice.

AUSLANDER: For me, hiking has been an acquired taste. Like olives and anchovies, I didn’t really enjoy it until I was in my twenties. But my husband always liked being outside. To hear his parents tell it, he was a little Mozart of tree identification: he could spot the difference between a red oak and a white oak by the time he was 18 months old.

For a while it looked like our two children were falling close to the wrong tree. The indoor ficus from my past, that is. My kids preferred playing computer games and watching TV to spending time in nature. My daughter declared walking along the nearby canal “bohr-RING.” And my son complained whenever we went outside for longer than it takes to get from the front door to the car. Talk about nature deficit disorder!

A chocolate mountain birthday cake, complete with rock candy boulders and marzipan frogs. (Photo: Bonnie Auslander)

But two years ago it all began to change. We prodded them into climbing a mountain in Virginia where my daughter spied some vultures riding the currents. We found a little mountain in Maryland with a steep scramble to the rocky top that my son adored. He even held his seventh birthday party there, complete with a chocolate cake in the shape of a mountain. So what was behind this shift?

Number one: we took them to steep, rocky places. Kids like running uphill. Forget leisurely strolls along open meadows and go for elevation. Two: we used bribes strategically. The kids know that at the top of the trail, we’ll pull out the unhealthy gorp, the kind where the chocolate chips outnumber the nuts five to one. Three: we purchased equipment. We invested in binoculars, a compass, and some sketchbooks and colored pencils that come out only for hikes. Now for four - this one is so radical that I know it won’t work for everyone: we gave away the TV, and the DVD player, and locked up the laptops. For our family, it was just easier to get rid of it all rather than argue everyday over how to ration it.

Bonnie Auslander and her family take a hike along the Potomac. (Photo: Bonnie Auslander)

We un-tethered the kids from electronics two years ago, and more than anything else on my list it’s responsible for how they’ve changed. Nature has just gotten more interesting. On a recent hike, my son held out a striped pebble for me to admire. My daughter showed me how the reflection of leaves falling into the water seemed to rise up to meet the real leaf. You can try it too. It just takes a dose of willpower, binoculars, and some chocolate chips. Throw in the tree identification book, but leave the iPhone at home. You really don’t need it when you’re outdoors.

GELLERMAN: Bonnie Auslander hikes with her husband and two kids outside of Washington, D.C.



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