In Vacationland, Renewed Efforts To Get Kids Outside

Jul 23, 2018

Did your parents ever order you to “just go play outside”? Studies show that kids are spending less time outdoors — far less than their parents and grandparents did.

The trend is worrying to some observers, who fear that a lack of connection to nature bodes especially ill for states with rural issues, like Maine.

In a 1942 educational film called “A Child Went Forth” — an allusion to a Walt Whitman poem about self discovery through experience — children are encouraged to run loose on a farm and splash about in mudholes without too much supervision.

“It has flowers and pigs, sunshine and mud. But best of all it has room and time to let you find out what it’s all about without being marched in lines and told what you have to do every five minutes,” the film says.

It’s just the sort of childhood Al Cowperthwait remembers in Houlton.

Al Cowperthwaite looking over the Pleasant River
Credit Jennifer Mitchell / Maine Public

“I’m in my 60s, and when I was a kid, my parents would give me some breakfast, and they’d push me out the back door, and I’d go down in the neighborhood with my other friends — and they wouldn’t start looking for us until suppertime,” he says.

Cowperthwaite grew up to become the executive director of the North Maine Woods, a 3.5 million acre working forest that is also open to the public for recreation. But he notes that fishing in the North Maine Woods has fallen by 40 percent over the last decade and hunting is less than half what it was in the 1990s.

Overall visiting to the North Maine Woods has fallen by more than a third over the last decade, with even fewer children and teens among the numbers.

“Today’s children are pretty well structured. There’s band and music and sports, and pretty much most of their life is structured around some activity, which is quite a lot different than it was four or five decades ago,” Cowperthwaite says.

In fact, today’s kid spends an average of just 12 minutes a day playing outside and more than 10 hours inside being inactive, according to the Seattle Children’s Research Institute. The average 16 year old spends 9 hours a day looking at screens. And a Yale University study last year found that both children and adults are becoming increasingly disconnected from the natural world.

As part of an effort to encourage young people to learn about the outdoors, Cowperthwaite says the North Maine Woods has dropped all entry fees for anyone under 18.

The gateway to North Maine Woods
Credit Jennifer Mitchell / Maine Public

“These folks are going to be voters at some point, and they should understand the relationship between how they live and the natural world around them — see where their paper and their furniture and their lumber comes from,” he says.

“I think we have to have advocates who have experienced it at firsthand and can really sort of academically and emotionally connect the dots,” says Susan Gallo with Maine Audubon.

Gallo says it can be hard to motivate people to act on important policy issues — such as curbing fertilizer runoff or restricting lead tackle — until they’ve actually seen a dying loon. And she says technology, while valuable, is no substitute for the real thing.

“Years ago we talked to some scientists at MIT who were thinking about a world of sensors. And we could put cellphones and record sounds and you could tune in, you know — you would never have to go outside. You’d just sit on your computer and you could hear the birds over here, you could listen to the frogs over here. My reaction was, ‘That’s horrifying. That’s terrible.’“

But fewer people are choosing to experience the real thing, and the reasons are complex, says Lauren Jacobs, a physical education lecturer at the University of Maine in Orono. In some cases, it’s how the family thinks about the outdoors or where they live.

“Do they live in a place where there’s outdoor space available? Do children and adults, whether justified or not, feel that outdoors is a safe place?” she says.

And safety is a legitimate concern. There are risks of falling, drowning or getting lost. As part of an effort to address some of the concerns, Jacobs is coordinating a new outdoor leadership minor at UMaine, starting in the fall.

Mount Katahdin in Baxter State Park
Credit Jennifer Mitchell / Maine Public

The idea, Jacobs says, is to ensure that passionate and proficient adults are there to guide others in their discovery, or rediscovery of nature. But she says parents and schools also have a role to play.

“How are we prioritizing time? Are we making access democratic? Public school — that’s accessible to every kid. So how can we make sure that kids in public schools are getting time outdoors so that we know that every kid is getting access?” she says.

At the gateway to the North Maine Woods, one kid who is getting access is 9-year-old Isaiah.

“I like to go fishing and hunting, and I like to practice shooting cans with my BB gun and stuff like that,” he says.

Asked whether he also uses phones, tablets and other technology, he says, “Yeah sometimes, but usually I go outdoors.”

He’s here on a camping trip with his grandfather Noel, who says as a boy he loved fishing, hanging out at the local swamp and learning about snakes, knowledge he’s passing on to Isaiah.

“If you introduce the young kids at that age, they’ll continue with it when they become adults,” Noel says. “It’s hard to bring in an adult and introduce them to it, but you get them hooked at this age — this is the time to get them hooked on it.”

The narrator of the 1942 film puts it like this:

“The noisy brood of the barnyard, or by the mire of the pondside. All became part of that child who went forth every day. And who now goes and will always go forth, every day.”