Fighting for a clean, healthy environment is my job. Literally. As a scientist for NRDC, I work to protect our endangered wildlife and wild lands on a daily basis. I find it challenging and rewarding, but it also means that I am acutely aware of the threats facing our world’s natural heritage and the rapid rate at which we are losing ground. We are in the midst of the world’s sixth mass extinction event, for example, caused largely by habitat loss, wildlife exploitation and the spread of invasive species – all results of our growing human population. Climate change now poses challenges to many of the remaining species and threatens to alter our natural landscapes in ways that are difficult to even imagine. It’s enough to make anyone despair.
The irony of my job is that I spend most of my days inside a sterile office building staring at a computer screen which can amplify the sense of loss or disconnect that I feel with nature. In order to keep my spirits up and renew my inspiration to keep fighting for the environment, I find the need to get outside and reestablish that nurturing relationship with nature. In part it provides a reassuring reminder that there are still beautiful spaces out there – even those small gems hidden within urban jungles. But of course there is also the positive emotional and physical response one gets from being outside. Studies have shown that even short stints outside can dramatically lower stress levels and increase memory and productivity. When you look at it that way, getting outside should be a required part of everyone’s job!
Another antidote to my office blues is my kids. (I mean, you know, except for when they are driving me crazy.) But really, who can look into their own child’s eyes and not see hopes and dreams for the future? My hopes and dreams for my two boys include having them live in a beautiful world with clean air, clean water and wide open landscapes inhabited by diverse wildlife. I know that my kids will have their own interests and ideas about life, but I would love it if they developed the same appreciation for the outdoors that I have, which is why I’ve always tried to make sure to get them outside.
The statistics on the dwindling time kids spend outdoors these days is alarming. On average, children spend 50% less time outdoors than they did 20 years ago. Outdoor time is being replaced by more ‘screen time’ at younger ages. At the same time, and not coincidentally, we see rising rates of health concerns in our youth such as obesity, ADHD and depression. The rates of each of these conditions have been shown to be lower, however, in kids who play outside. Similar to adults, exposure to nature lowers stress in children and increases their learning potential. Plus, kids who participate in outdoor, nature-based activities at a young age are more likely to develop a positive attitude about the environment.
For all of these reasons I have made a point to get my kids outside from an early age – starting with backyard adventures during their youngest years to increasingly longer hiking trips. Now, only 4 and 2, they are both seasoned campers who have discovered that sleeping in a tent outside is way more fun than sleeping at home. And I’ve discovered that camping with kids – although logistically challenging – is thoroughly enjoyable, as their excitement over new discoveries reignites my own sense of awe in the world. As is often the case with my kids, what I thought would be a lesson for them has turned out to be a meaningful learning experience for me. Plus, my obsession with making sure that my kids connect with nature has had the added effect of helping me get outside more often too.
Maybe I’ll push too hard and my kids won’t want to have anything to do with the great outdoors. (I recognize that I may have already gone overboard by naming my boys, Leo and Charlie, after my two favorite naturalists: Aldo Leopold and Charles Darwin.) But for now when I start feeling discouraged by my work on the environment, I look at my kids climbing trees at the park or splashing in a muddy creek – and I see hope. I see hope for them to live healthy and fulfilling lives. And I see hope that if my generation can’t meet the environmental challenges facing this planet, maybe their generation will.
In fact, maybe the most important work I do for the environment is not from 9 to 5 in front of the computer, but the time that I spend with my kids outdoors. Maybe the answer to our environmental woes and our kids’ growing health problems is not only simple, but fun: Getting outside with our kids. What if we could raise a little army of nature lovers – whether it’s simply by taking them out in our backyards, to the local park or on a remote camping experience? And what if in doing so, we reignite that childlike wonder of the natural world inside of ourselves leading to our own nature revolution – here and now?
Okay, maybe it’s more complicated than that. But I say it’s still worth a shot since, as I’ve found, getting outside is not only great for your kids, but it’s good for your soul. And who knows – it might just save the world.
(This post was originally featured in the on-line Sparrow Magazine.)