Kaden Speck, a third-grader at Irving Elementary School in Joplin, loves being outdoors.
“I like the outside because I can do dangerous wild survival stuff,” he said. “I can use sticks and pretend they are spears, and I can climb on rocks.”
But when it comes to the outdoors, Kaden and those like him are an exception.
In a world in which entertainment is overwhelmingly electronic, many children aren’t getting outside enough, say some of the experts. The result is something they call “nature deficit disorder.”
The term was coined in 2005 by author Richard Louv in his book “Last Child in the Woods” to explain how a disconnect with nature is affecting children.
While it isn’t a recognized medical condition and no statistics illustrate the number of youths who aren’t getting enough time outside, studies point to some of the consequences.
“Physicians are seeing an increase in vitamin D deficiencies, and learning specialists have determined that if children are not involved in outdoor free play during certain stages of their development, they won’t develop those cognitive skills at all,” said Kerstin Landwer, the development and volunteer coordinator at Joplin’s Wildcat Glades Conservation & Audubon Center.
Other health problems, including obesity, have been linked to children playing outdoors less often than those in earlier generations.
But if a recent statewide award is any indication, Joplin has made strides reconnecting children and nature.
Last month, Joplin was one of two cities named Missouri Children in Nature communities for creating an environment that encourages youngsters to be outdoors. The other city was Kirksville. The Missouri Children in Nature Challenge was created by executive order of Gov. Jay Nixon to challenge communities to increase children’s opportunities to experience nature.
“Children appear to benefit physically, mentally and even spiritually by reconnecting with nature, and we need to provide them with the opportunities to do so,” Georganne Nixon, first lady of Missouri, said in a statement announcing Joplin’s designation.
Landwer wrote and submitted Joplin’s proposal, which included details about nine events from August 2011 through January this year, as well as partnerships with several community agencies and organizations.
“In the application process, you have to show that your community as a whole is making an investment in getting kids outdoors,” Landwer said.
Some of that investment was evident Saturday during the annual Shoal Creek Water Festival in Wildcat Park. Local companies, including EaglePicher Technologies, Commerce Bank, Missouri American Water and Lozier, served as sponsors. It paid off, organizers said, drawing more than 2,000 visitors.
One of the visitors was Kaden, the Irving student.
“He can just let his imagination go wild in nature,” said his grandmother, Carol Vore. “He goes camping, swimming, exploring — he can just be himself out here.”
Jasmine Talley, a fourth-grader at Stapleton Elementary School, spent a great deal of time at the Chert Glades Naturalist booth, examining aquatic invertebrates from Shoal Creek.
“I like the hellgrammite the best,” she said as she gently placed various creatures in a magnifier designed for use in water.
“She’s checked out every species we have,” said master naturalist Billie Mullins.
Landwer’s application also cited the city’s commitment to rebuilding and improving Cunningham and Parr Hill parks after the May 2011 tornado, an expanding trail system, community involvement by the Boy Scouts, and a partnership with the Missouri Department of Conservation.
The application noted that several community organizations worked together to get a grant from the state to build a playground near the temporary Federal Emergency Management Agency housing site in Joplin, and that school gardens have been established at Stapleton Elementary, West Central Elementary, Duenweg/Duquesne Elementary, Martin Luther School and North Middle School.
Every Joplin third-grader visits the Wildcat Glades nature center, and a grant from the Environmental Protection Agency is funding efforts by sixth-graders to help with an ongoing water quality training project. Along with the Shoal Creek Stream Team and Audubon staff members, the sixth-graders conducted aquatic invertebrate and chemical testing, and stenciled storm drains with messages asking Joplin residents not to dump anything in the drains.
Wildcat Glades also offered all of its Saturday summer programming free last year to those affected by the tornado. In the Wildcat Nature Club, for example, more than 20 children participated in weekly hands-on environmental education programs while their parents and guardians worked to restore their homes or volunteered in cleanup efforts.
Also, local YMCAs and the Boys & Girls Club of Joplin offered reduced fees and free programming to allow children to connect with nature in a therapeutic way. An outdoor survival skills program was offered, supplemented with nature journals and therapeutic art to assist in the healing process.
No prize money was involved in Joplin’s latest designation, and there is no trophy to speak of, but Wildcat Glades staff members see the real award as something different.
“We were given a metal sign designating Joplin as a recipient, and that’s it,” Landwer said. “But knowing you’re putting kids out in nature, that’s what’s important.”
City of Joplin honored for efforts to get children outdoors
Kaden Speck, a third-grader at Irving Elementary School in Joplin, loves being outdoors.
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