The way children understand and experience their natural world has changed radically over the past several decades. Their physical contact and intimacy with the natural outdoors has diminished greatly and during the past few years has become recognized as a national issue of concern. In his 2005 book, Last Child in the Woods, Richard Louv, refers to the alleged trend that children are spending less time in the outdoors, resulting in a wide range of behavioral problems, as Nature Deficit Disorder. Louv claims that causes for the phenomenon include parental fears, restricted access to natural areas, and the lure of the screen. There is speculation that the loss of a nature connection threatens the child’s independent judgment, value of place, ability to feel awe and wonder, and psychological and physical health. Physical inactivity and a lack of contact with nature among our youth and families are becoming increasingly recognized as contributing to a national health crisis that can manifest itself in child obesity and attention deficit hyperactivity disorder.
Stephen T. Mather (1867-1930), a self-made millionaire and the first director of the National Park Service, recognized magnificent scenery as the primary criterion for establishment of national parks. Within the framework of “scenery,” his preservation ethic covered such issues as the locations of park developments, provision of vistas along roadways, and the perpetuation of the natural scene. Mather always wished to have the parks supported by avid users, who would then communicate their support to their elected representatives, in turn generating the advocacy for conservation of these areas for future generations. However, recent research demonstrates a decline in the number of National Park visits in the United States. It is highly unlikely that Mather would have even considered the possibility of a phenomenon like Nature Deficit Disorder.
His original vision for the National Park Service did however include recognition that a comprehensive system including state parks would be needed to complement the unique resources provided by the National Park Service to collectively address the many environmental and social challenges that would face this nation and its unique natural resources. In September of 2007, Mather’s vision became a reality, when the National Association of State Park Directors and the National Park Service Leadership Council met in Williamsburg, Virginia and agreed to work collectively on the following plan of action: Focus on individual initiatives to increase the public’s awareness and value of connecting children and nature toward a goal of improving the knowledge of our nation’s natural resources and the health and welfare of the present and future generation of young Americans.
As the trusted stewards of these resources, these groups have taken the challenge to reengage our children and families with the natural world and reverse the trend which has led to nature deficit disorder. The leadership of our system of state and national parks will work collaboratively to reconnect our youth and families with the land in such a way as to create a new generation of stewards, improve the mental and physical health of our nation, reduce the cost of health care, increase awareness of the important role nature plays in our lives and ensure the perpetuation of the resources entrusted to their care. The two groups are committed to join together in a continuing dialogue to discuss common issues and implement solutions to create a seamless system of services, to share information and knowledge on developing and expanding natural resource education and recreation opportunities for children and their families. They also committed to engage other federal, state, local, tribal and non-government partners in shared technology and interactive programs and problem solving activities to achieve mutually agreed upon goals to connect children and nature and to promote a national campaign to recognize the importance of connecting children and families to nature.
One of the states actively demonstrating their commitment to achieve these objectives is Virginia. Johnny Finch, of the Virginia Association for Parks (VAFP), and Joe Elton, the Director of Virginia State Parks, and soon to be President of the National Association of State Park Directors, are embracing rather than resisting the use of technology as a tool to bridge the gap between our youth and the outdoors. Their programs are focused on educating and informing people about nature so they are comfortable to experience outdoor adventure.
One of the recent programs these gentlemen launched was in August of 2007. With the financial support of the Virginia Association for Parks, Dominion Foundation and others, the Virginia State Parks successfully completed the launch of the nation’s first and most ambitious electronic interpretive information program specifically designed for visitors to a State Park system. This system was fully developed and implemented by Imperial Multimedia, a Wisconsin based, full service company specializing in delivering custom new media interpretive and information solutions for state and national parks, museums and historical sites, retail, resorts and cultural attractions.
The resulting response from the Virginia Department of Conservation and Recreation, the media, and most importantly the park guests, was enthusiastic and widespread. Accolades from the park guests did not stop with their acceptance and use of the system. The Virginia Recreation and Parks Society, which is comprised primarily of local park professionals, recognized the project with the Best Promotional Effort Electronic Media award during their Annual Conference and Awards Ceremony. During the unveiling of the system at First Landing State Park, Governor Kaine remarked to the press, “The amount of information in this system is really amazing.” This system enhances a park visitor’s stay by providing information on the park, nearby attractions, and even local emergency information. These interactive kiosks also can help a visitor plan future visits to our state park system.”
Among peers in the State and National Park systems, Virginia’s Information Station project has received significant attention and has contributed to Virginia’s success as a role model and leader in conservation and outdoor recreation. The vision for new media in the outdoors and the ability of this technology to leap the generation gap is evident in this comment from Fred Hazelwood, District I Manager. “I can certainly endorse that the kiosk is popular with our visitors, of all ages, and that it provides a needed service. Yesterday, I watched as a home school group of two adults and six children used the kiosk to plan their hike through the park. They printed their map and off they went but, not before each child had had the opportunity to use the touch screen to explore the data base.”
VAFP is currently working with Imperial Multimedia to develop a truly revolutionary outdoor recreation website that will not only attract the avid outdoor enthusiasts like Stephen Mather, but will also focus its efforts on using technology to attract, inform and prepare youth and families to get outdoors. The site will contain all the park trail, amenity, activity, local service, camping, information that is currently available in the kiosk system and will also include social networking, calendar of events, volunteer opportunities, multiple media formats for information and interpretive content, podcasts, downloadable GIS and map information, secondary education modules for school programming, and many more exciting features that will make the site the best outdoor recreation site for Virginia.
Most would agree that technology should not be a replacement for the true nature experience. Instead, we must challenge ourselves to use technology as a tool to bridge the gap by informing, educating, and encouraging participation in the outdoors. If technology is rejected as an acceptable method to reach these young audiences by making the assumption that the response will be less desire to get outdoors, we are closing the door to possibly the most effective way to create a new generation of stewards, improve the mental and physical health of our nation, reduce healthcare costs, and the other ambitious goals outlined.
To find out more about other programs Virginia has underway to address these issues, explore www.virginiaparks.org.