In his book Last Child in the Woods: Saving Our Children from Nature-Deficit Disorder, Richard Louv used the term "nature-deficit disorder" to describe the alarming lack of connection between American youth and their natural environments. Other researchers have documented the multiple ways this nature-disconnect is contributing to negative outcomes for children. An article in the popular Sports Illustrated describes Americans as becoming "indoor people".
Today, lots of nature program efforts are focused on this "nature-deficit." However, I wonder how we can make the most of these beneficial nature settings for youth. How can we use nature settings or nature spaces to cultivate positive youth development?
A growing body of research links youth exposure to nature settings with a variety of positive personal and environmental impacts. Studies have suggested that natural spaces can contribute to positive outcomes via a variety of factors -- sense of health, sense of well-being, sense of place, sense of community -- related to positive youth development.
These ideas are well established, by writers such as Chawla, McMillan & Chavis, and Sobel. Indeed, researchers have described nature spaces as part of the very "geography of childhood", the setting where they create "sacred spaces."
My interest in the role of nature spaces for positive youth development was sparked early in my career, and provided focus for my graduate study. My thesis, Effects of Green Space on Urban Children's Sense of Community, explored the relationship of green space with youth interactions. Using an ethnographic approach, I documented elements in local park spaces that encouraged youth to come together, and play freely, even when they did not know each other beforehand.
I observed how these qualities of the nature space enriched youths' sense of community. For example, one park encompassed a stream with two natural waterfalls. One that cascaded through the space and provided a natural waterslide for youth play. I witnessed youth using it as a slide, meeting other children for the first time, developing and teaching 'rules' of the slide, and welcoming others. At the other slide, I saw older youth "hiding" among the higher rocks for close conversation, and welcoming newcomers into swimming and games of fetch and retrieval.
Nature spaces can be a powerful setting in which we can provoke positive youth development, given right mix of nature elements and programming.
In April, I will be presenting a webinar on the role of natural spaces in as a place for positive youth development. As I build my presentation, I am gathering ideas from others. In your experience or in your opinion, how can we best use natural spaces as a setting to catalyze positive youth development? What are some methods you use to make the most of nature space for positive youth development?