The demands and distractions of modern society are preventing too many of us from appreciating nature. Constraints on our time and fear of danger keep us indoors. Children spend more time doing homework and playing organized sports than they do in unstructured play, while parents spend more time commuting—a result of changes to the built environment and sprawl.
When many of us were young, we played outside until we were called in for lunch or dinner. But times are different and we need to evolve to improve the health and well-being of all generations. “No Child or Elder Left Inside” (a play on the No Child Left Inside Act, which would make environmental education an integral part of American elementary school curriculum, and was introduced to Congress this past July) must be the response to address the epidemic of obesity and lack of outdoor exploration.
Elders have an opportunity to share their knowledge of the environment with children, and reminisce about changes that have occurred during their lifetime. This interaction is rewarding for both generations. Elders can help get children off the couch, away from computer games and into communities where they learn to appreciate parks, woods and open spaces.
Richard Louv, author of Last Child in the Woods, called our reduced interaction with the outdoors “nature deficit disorder,” and directly linked it to the increase in childhood obesity, Attention Deficit Disorder and depression.
The Need for Nature Is Ageless and Timeless
While only a few studies have examined the benefits of contact with nature, a number of them suggest improvements in social ties and a sense of community (Green Common Spaces and the Social Integration of Inner-City Older Adults, 1998); improved self-reported well-being (Residential Landscapes: Their Contribution to the Quality of Older People’s Lives, 1997); and higher self-reported satisfaction (Benefits of Nearby Nature for Elderly Apartment Residents, 1991).
A 2010 study at Portland State University, funded by the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), demonstrated the benefits of green streets. Green streets incorporate the natural landscape (absorbing storm water) and accommodate multiple travel modes, like walking and biking. The study found green streets may have positive effects on walking, and are also associated with higher levels of social interaction. In one intervention site, residents were more likely to observe children playing outside and said their neighborhood was a better place to live (source).
Finally, a 2004 study, Cultivating Health: Therapeutic Landscapes and Older People in Northern England, suggests contact with nature helps with the healing process, psychological stress and improves sleep and physical activity.
The EPA’s Role
Nationally, the EPA has done its part, awarding grants to organizations to train elders in environmental stewardship and leadership. Many of these projects focus on protecting citizens from exposure to environmental hazards, as well as conservation. For example, the Legacy Institute for the Environment (LIFE) provides participants with information and insights into the complex environmental issues and challenges facing the fragile Chesapeake Bay ecosystem. LIFE graduates are environmental ambassadors who teach children—from preschool through high school—about the health of the local ecosystem and its importance to their well-being.
Graduates of the program have moved into volunteer leadership roles in many environmental organizations. As one volunteer said, “LIFE is what gives me opportunity and direction. I have realized personal goals, found a new me inside and have become a small part of the solution to the world’s major environmental issues. I can truly feel I am spending some of my ‘golden years’ to ensure a bright future for my grandchildren. That feels good!”
In The Sense of Wonder, Rachel Carson described the beauty of nature and the joy of helping children develop a sense of wonder, curiosity and love of nature. She recognized the importance of the generations sharing and experiencing nature, writing that “if a child is to keep alive his inborn sense of wonder, he needs the companionship of at least one adult who can share it, rediscovering with him the joy, excitement, and mystery of the world we live in.”
It was Carson’s book, The Sense of Wonder, that inspired the EPA’s intergenerational creative art contest with the same title. Intergenerational teams create poems, essays, photos and dance that capture the sense of wonder of the natural environment.
Kathy Sykes is senior advisor for the EPA’s Aging Initiative in their Office of Public Engagement, Washington, D.C. For June 2012, the EPA is planning a conference, “Promoting Intergenerational and Environmental Health across the Life-span,” which will be held in New York. For more information, click here.
Editor’s Note: This article appears in the September/October, 2011, issue of Aging Today, ASA’s bi-monthly newspaper covering issues in aging research, practice and policy nationwide. ASA members receive Aging Today as a member benefit; non-members may purchase subscriptions at our online store.
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