Imagine a supplement that could make kids calmer and more able to learn; that would boost creativity and sink stress levels, combat attention-deficit disorder and help them feel more connected to each other.
Wouldn’t parents everywhere line up to get some for their kids – and themselves?
The prescription is free, and easy to access: Vitamin N, as in Nature, says Richard Louv, author of the 2005 blockbuster “Last Child in the Woods: Saving Our Children from Nature-Deficit Disorder” and 2011’s “The Nature Principle.”
The latest evidence, Louv says, is a study soon to be released by the University of Illinois, which tracked test results for children in more than 500 schools in the Chicago area. It found that the single greatest factor behind improved scores was the exposure of children to nature.
“This isn’t just about camp. This is about making kids happier and more creative throughout the year,” he said.
That’s the aim of The Charlotte Observer’s Summer Camp Fund, which raises money for children from low-income families to attend summer camps. In its sixth year, the fund will send more than 266 Charlotte-area children to 14 different residential and day camps this summer.
For some of the campers, it will be their first taste of jumping into a lake, hiking up a mountain trail or climbing onto a horse.
Even if the camp lasts just a week, Louv says the impact can last a lifetime.
“They’re likely to come back calmer and more focused and more creative,” Louv says.
Louv started an international conversation about the relationship between children and nature with his first book, then founded the Children & Nature Network, which has spawned chapters across the globe. He fueled the creation of dozens of other organizations, such as the N.C. Children and Nature Coalition, volunteers from across the state who advocate for getting children connected with nature.
In the past decade, study after study has shown the undisputed benefits of time outdoors for kids.
University of Kansas researchers found that backpackers showed a 50 percent boost in creativity after just a few days in the woods, while a University of Illinois study recommended “green time” for kids with Attention Deficit hyperactive disorder, or ADHD.
Local camp leaders say they see firsthand how little some kids are exposed to the outdoors – and the great gift they reap when they’re turned loose in nature.
Natalie Childers, programs and camp director for the Carolina Raptor Center, which participates in the Observer’s Summer Camp Fund, says every summer she sees kids who are bewildered by nature when they first show up.
“For some of these kids, you have to talk about bug spray and sunscreen and not killing a bug. They see an earthworm or an inchworm, and it’s panic time,” Childers says. “A lot of these kids will scream and run away, and their instinct is to smash the bug. We have to talk about how everything has a place in this world.”
Some kids don’t want to canoe or kayak for fear of what is lurking in the lake. Others want to run inside at the first sign of rain.
But even just a week of turning over rocks, hiking through woods, meeting the center’s raptors and spending time on Mountain Island Lake can completely change a camper’s relationship with the great outdoors, Childers says.
“We encourage them to go home and teach their family what they’ve learned,” she says. “Parents come in and say, ‘My child will not let me squish bugs anymore.’ ”
Sometimes, an appreciation for nature that germinates at camp can blossom after a child is home, Louv says.
“Some kids are in neighborhoods where they don’t perceive any nature around them. But often the densest inner city has nature, if you look for it,” Louv says. “It’s on a different scale. To be able to bring that idea of nature home with you, no matter what kind of neighborhood you live in, is very important.”
Kathy Bull, who leads the N.C. Children and Nature Coalition, says her heart breaks when she leads family outdoor programs and the kids and parents clearly don’t know how to explore in a grassy field, or are afraid to get their hands dirty in a muddy play area.
“The reason (children) are stressed out and the reason a lot of families aren’t connecting and creating memories is that they’re running around from activity to activity,” she says.
“The data indicates that children who have connections to nature and unstructured play outdoors do better in school, are healthier, more socially adept and they’re more successful when they enter the workforce,” Bull says.
Time spent at summer camp “has a tremendous impact,” Bull says.
And for kids growing up in poverty, time away from home and in nature could provide a new, fresh perspective.
“This is a group of kids that needs this. This is where they’ll find that nature is an equalizer. Everyone is the same in nature,” Bull says. “They get a sense of accomplishment, because they can accomplish things in nature.
“And most of all,” she says, “they can relax.”