'Connecting Children and Nature'

Cheryl Charles, Children and Nature Network Charles is cofounder of the Children and Nature Network (, a New Mexico-based nonprofit she helped form in 2006 with Richard Louv, author of "Last Child in the Woods." The netw...

Cheryl Charles
Cheryl Charles is cofounder of the Children and Nature Network.

Cheryl Charles,

Children and Nature Network

Charles is cofounder of the Children and Nature Network ( , a New Mexico-based nonprofit she helped form in 2006 with Richard Louv, author of "Last Child in the Woods."

The network aims to help provide resources for educators, parents and others to reconnect children with nature in the era of iPods, text messaging and computers.

A longtime educator with a doctorate in curriculum and instruction, Charles will be the keynote speaker at the "Connecting Children and Nature" conference set for Wednesday at the University of Minnesota-Crookston.


She talked about the conference and efforts to rekindle children's interest in nature with Herald outdoors writer Brad Dokken.

Q. You're the guest speaker at Wednesday's "Connecting Children and Nature Conference" in Crookston. What are some of the key points you'll be covering?

A. I will be talking about this phenomenon that author Richard Louv ("Last Child in the Woods") has coined -- Nature Deficit Disorder. It's not a medical diagnosis, but it is a way for all of us to think about the changes in childhood that have occurred in the past 30 years, have escalated in the past 10 years and are affecting children in every setting, including rural settings.

We'll be talking about the importance for children's healthy development for them to have direct experiences in nature as often as possible.

Q. What are the main causes of the growing disconnect between young people and the natural world?

A. It's a combination of factors. One is the pervasiveness of technology. I'm not against technology at all. But for many children if not most children, their lives are a bit out of balance.

The Kaiser Family Foundation has shown an increase in children's use of computers, handheld devices and games in the past five years, and now it's more than 50 hours a week on average for young people to be hooked into what I call the electronic umbilical.

It's kind of slipped up on us as a society. It used to be that children simply went home after school and played outside, and that tends not to happen so much anymore.


Q. What does research say about that disconnect and its impact on young people?

A. There is a growing body of research that indicates a whole variety of changes in childhood. You can't say there's a direct cause and effect, but there are associations, there are correlations. Many of the researchers that I talk with say we need more research, but we know enough to act.

The obesity epidemic is tied to the notion that children are not getting enough active, vigorous play, and they're not tending to play outdoors.

Q. How do we go about reversing that disconnect, and what are the consequences if we don't?

A. I think we'll continue to see children who are not flourishing. They're not thriving.

Some people talk about a culture of depression, where many children just don't have that self-confidence. And so, what can we do? We can create these opportunities. We can integrate nature-based experiences in the school day as a place in which to learn to be confident, to learn in context.

There is research to support the notion that kids will tend to do better on standardized tests with those direct experiences in the natural world or incorporated in the curriculum.

Q. It doesn't have to be anything large-scale, either, does it? It can be as simple as exploring the life under a rock or a fallen tree.


A. Absolutely, and it can be nearby. Even though it's great to get out and have exciting adventures in wilderness areas and things like that, for most of us, it's just recognizing that nature's all around us and that it can be fun, interesting and inspiring.

Children tend to be happier -- I've coined this phrase "happier, healthier, smarter" -- they tend to do better in school, they're more cooperative, more collaborative and have more self-confidence.

Q. How has the Children and Nature Network grown and changed since it was formed in 2006?

A. We've grown immensely. In 2006, there were a handful of what we'd call city or state or regional collaborations where physicians and educators and naturalists and others would come together to work on a communitywide or a statewide basis to create the children and nature movement.

Now, there are more than 80 such collaborations and campaigns in more than 40 states, and in 2009, they reported reaching and engaging close to 1.5 million children and families in nature-based experiences.

We're growing it, we're absolutely growing it. It's so much fun to see the momentum and the really positive changes in children's lives. We haven't turned it around yet -- the numbers are not big enough -- but it is great. I expect we'll be in all 50 states within another year.

Q. Given the opportunity, are kids receptive to nature?

A. Absolutely. Sometimes, it's hard to get them out there. You know, they're stuck on the couch, wanting to play games, all those kinds of things. But once they're out there, it's magical.


It's amazing, the complexity of some of this, but you see a child turning over a rock, you see kids watching frogs near a pond or that kind of thing, and they get so excited. It's fun, it's nourishing and again, it's good for kids in every way.

Q. What advice would you give parents, educators and others in terms of helping kids learn about the natural world?

A. Make it a priority. A lot of young parents and young teachers today didn't have these experiences. So, look to others who can help out, who can show you how to pitch a tent or how to create a butterfly garden in your backyard. There are a lot of resources, and a lot of people can help. And the results are good for everyone.

Dokken reports on outdoors. Reach him at (701) 780-1148; (800) 477-6572, ext. 148; or send e-mail to .

Brad Dokken joined the Herald company in November 1985 as a copy editor for Agweek magazine and has been the Grand Forks Herald's outdoors editor since 1998.

Besides his role as an outdoors writer, Dokken has an extensive background in northwest Minnesota and Canadian border issues and provides occasional coverage on those topics.

Reach him at, by phone at (701) 780-1148 or on Twitter at @gfhoutdoor.
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