Monday, November 30, 2009

Building nature-based communities

How do individuals, organizations, and communities connect children, youth, and families with nature? These questions were at the heart of Richard Louv’s 2005 book, Last Child in the Woods: Saving Our Children from Nature-Deficit Disorder, which marshaled research and statistics to show that children are spending significantly less time in the outdoors than in previous generations, to their detriment and to society’s. Louv’s book inspired a movement, called “No Child Left Inside,” part of which was on display last month at a one-day conference in Northwood, N.H.

“Building Nature-based Communities” was the first conference put on by the New Hampshire Children in Nature Coalition. The coalition, formed in 2007 by a diverse group of professionals who shared an interest in connecting youth and nature, brought Richard Louv to New Hampshire as the keynote speaker at a statewide forum that year. The 2009 conference was developed for what Marilyn Wyzga, one of the organizers, called “grassroots” decision-makers; the 200 registered included AMC staff, parents, teachers, directors of recreation departments, wildlife biologists, and representatives from health organizations and nonprofits.

AMC member Nell Neal was drawn to the conference because of Louv. Neal teaches first-grade grade at the Moharimet School, a K-4 public school in Oyster River, in New Hampshire’s seacoast region. Two years ago, she and fellow first-grade teacher Becky Bradley participated in a PTO-sponsored discussion of Last Child in the Woods. Neal and Bradley noticed that although many of the parents in the discussion endorsed the book’s goals, they had trouble overcoming the fears, concerns, and circumstances that kept their children from spending time outside.

In the PTO discussion, the two teachers heard fears of “stranger danger,” concerns about diseases carried by ticks and mosquitoes, and safety concerns about traffic. They knew that less than one in five children nationwide walks or bikes to school, and that an even smaller percentage do so at Moharimet because the school is located on a busy highway with narrow shoulders and minimal access from residential neighborhoods. They knew that many elements of modern family life erect additional barriers between their students and nature, including the ready availability of digital media, busy family schedules, and complex logistics that keep children in cars or inside, rather than outside.

Neal and Bradley had already been taking their students into woods bordering the school for playtime. After the PTO discussion, they saw an opportunity to expand their efforts. They dubbed the 30-minute playtime “free exploration” and scheduled it for Friday afternoons. They set simple safety rules:

* Always keep a teacher in view.
* Don’t pull up things that are growing.
* Don’t climb trees.
* Don’t lift anything above waist level.

But they allowed the children—encouraged them—to drag around branches that were as long as a first-grader and probably weighed about the same, too. They encouraged their students to build twig teepees and fairy houses, collect leaves and acorns, and simply to be outside. At the beginning of the school year, Neal and Bradley now send materials about the Friday outdoor activity to the children’s parents, and then update the parents in weekly newsletters. The “free exploration” and its associated parent education has continued into the current school year. The children quickly shed their timidity around the natural world, Neal says, and now “look forward to Friday afternoon all week.”

The teachers came to the conference looking for more safety information and curriculum ideas that would reinforce their students’ connection to nature. Throughout the day, breakout sessions and presentations addressed their questions as well as the larger issues behind the conference’s title. Other sessions explained how community groups can collaborate to create safe walking and bicycling routes to and from schools and other public destinations, how to create nature clubs and natural playgrounds, and how to create and use community assessments to build nature-based and child-friendly communities. (See below for more information.)

Nell Neal and Becky Bradley left the conference with a clearer sense of the obstacles that they and their students face—but also with a sense of hope that their first-graders will one day spend a lot more time outside than 30 minutes every Friday afternoon.

Learn more
At the “Building Nature-based Communities” conference, presenters and experts provided a number of resources for connecting and reconnecting kids and nature. For more information about the October 1 conference, visit the New Hampshire Children in Nature Coalition website, hosted by the New Hampshire Fish & Game Department.

AMC's education director Pam Hess gave presentations on "Staying Safe and Found" and "Hiking as a Family." Both presentations are available to individuals and groups. AMC has also recently released a fact sheet on the challenge of getting kids outdoors and AMC's commitment to finding solutions.

Conference keynote speakers Ashley and Chip Donahue described how they began the Kids in the Valley family nature club. Toolkits to create nature clubs for families are available from the Children & Nature Network.

Terry Johnson, director of HEAL (Healthy Eating Active Living) New Hampshire, described how citizens and community organizations can assess neighborhoods and communities for livability and walkability. Other New Hampshire resources: New Hampshire Safe Routes to School Program and the Bike-Walk Alliance of New Hampshire.

Steve Glazer, creator of the award-winning, place-based education program Valley Quest, described the process of setting up natural and cultural history treasure hunts.

Additional information and research is available on childhood obesity and physical activity, Active Living Research, and the National Complete Streets Coalition.

Great Kids, Great Outdoors” is an AMC Outdoors blog, written by Kristen Laine.

Heated conversations: a family tradition

We spent Thanksgiving in western New York, where my father and stepmother live. Each time we visit, especially at this time of year, a song by Dar Williams plays on repeat in my head:
“There’s another part of the country with a land that gently creaks and thuds
Where the heavy snows make faucets leak in bathrooms with free-standing tubs. . .”

After taking the train into Buffalo, we drove south through that creaking, hilly country.

The holiday this year included aunts, uncles, cousins, and friends of the family. Over the long weekend, we took walks along the Allegheny River, which swings through western New York before it joins its larger destiny in Pittsburgh (the Ohio, the Mississippi, the Gulf of Mexico); we played games, and of course, we ate. The best part for Ursula and Virgil, though, was the sauna. For that, the four of us plus two cousins drove a dozen miles to the lake house where my father and stepmother spend their summers. Dad had gone ahead to light a fire in the special stove, so that when we arrived, the smooth lake stones mounded on top of the stove had already heated the room.

My father was born to Finnish parents and lived in Finland until he was four. He’s taken saunas his whole life, as have I and my brothers and our children. A quarter-century ago, he built the sauna on the lake. Since then, we celebrate every visit with a family sauna.

First comes the ritual of measuring the children against the door frame in the changing room. By now, the wooden board contains so many penciled lines, names, and dates, that Dad sometimes has to search for a place to squeeze in a new mark. Ursula checked where she stood in relation to her older cousin, who is now in college, both to her height that day and to her height when she was Ursula’s age. Ursula also located my mark from 25 years ago. Holding her thumb and forefinger about five inches apart, she showed me the distance left between us. Yes, I agreed, she’s almost reached me.

Inside the sauna, we arranged ourselves along the top bench. The cousin who’s a year younger than Ursula stationed herself near the deep kettle that we keep filled with water. She poured water into wooden mugs and passed them along the row, and tossed water onto the heated rocks at regular intervals. Dad sat in the middle, surrounded by family, glad to be sharing the tradition with us.

What excites the kids most, though, is not the tradition, the heat, or the conversation: It’s the shock of transition. So almost as soon as we were seated, they started clamoring to leave, to run into the lake. The adults could hold them back only so long, and so we let them go. I watched Ursula, steam rising from her pink body, dive into the gray water with a joyous yelp. Virgil followed, jigging at the water’s edge before taking the plunge. I hadn’t heated up quite enough to join them, so I watched instead. During the summer, that lake is full of activity on the shore and on the water. But on that chill, overcast day, we seemed to be the only people around. Everywhere I looked, docks were pulled up and cottages closed for the season.

After another round in the hot sauna, we all dove into the freezing water and came up laughing and hollering. As if on cue, fat snowflakes began to fall.

Learn more
Hear Dar Williams sing “Southern California wants to be Western New York.”

Basic information about the Finnish sauna: history, health cautions, construction.

Great Kids, Great Outdoors” is an AMC Outdoors blog, written by Kristen Laine.

Tuesday, November 24, 2009

Junior Naturalist: Wild Turkeys

A flock of wild turkeys has been eating the dropped apples under the ancient apple trees in the field behind our house. At least once a day, they emerge single-file from the woods in back. They feast companionably on the fermenting fruit. Then they parade off in a line, crossing the road by the mailbox as carefully as our children, looking both ways and watching out for cars.

The 10 to 15 birds in the fluctuating flock are a regular part of our life here. In late winter, toms (male turkeys) perform courtship dances on the field’s south-facing slope where the snow melts out early. They dip and spin and high-step and fan their tail feathers for the hens, who strike us as far less interested in the toms’ spectacle than in pecking for food on the ground. Still, every spring, we see chicks scurrying along behind their mothers.

They’re flocking up now for the cold winter. The birds we see out back are fat and healthy, having gorged on this year’s fine acorn crop and our apples. The low-angled sun glints off their backs as if it’s burnished metal: reddish copper and gold, and iridescent bronze flecked with green and blue and purple.

It’s hard to square our experience of these ambling flocks, as regular in their schedules and docile in appearance as a herd of dairy cows, with their reputation among hunters as wily, nearly invisible prey. They do seem miraculously to melt into the woods during the short shotgun season each fall. In the forest, their coloring — so striking in our open field — camouflages them against leaf litter, tree bark, and patchy sunlight. Knowing that helps remind us that they’re wild birds.

They are in fact a long way from — though related to — the butterballs we sit down to at the Thanksgiving table. The Aztecs domesticated the South American turkey, which was then taken back to Europe by the Conquistadors and subsequently brought back to colonial America by the Pilgrims. That said, the first Thanksgiving meal is thought to have included not the farm birds but venison and wild turkey.

The colonists at Plimouth Plantation called that first feast “a bounty of the land,” and what a bounty it was: Scholars estimate the population of wild turkeys in North America before the colonial period at 10 to 20 million. By the 1930s, though, the bird had been hunted nearly to extinction; government scientists figured that remnant flocks totaled fewer than 30,000 birds. The wild turkey had completed disappeared from New Hampshire by 1854. But a sustained effort by federal and state agencies to re-introduce the wild turkey to areas where it had once flourished has worked resoundingly well. Our flock is descended from 25 turkeys that were released in New Hampshire in 1975, and are among 40,000 now in the state — and 7 million nationwide.

Benjamin Franklin famously wanted the wild turkey to be the country’s emblem. This notion comes from a letter he sent his daughter shortly after Congress voted to make the bald eagle the national bird. Franklin, who knew his wildlife behavior, disliked the eagle’s thieving ways and what Franklin considered the bird’s cowardice. “He is a Bird of bad moral character,” Franklin wrote. “He does not get his Living honestly.” Franklin’s final assessment of the eagle: “He is therefore by no means a proper Emblem for the brave and honest Cincinnati of America who have driven all the King birds from our Country.”

The wild turkey, on the other hand, impressed Franklin: “For the Truth the Turkey is in Comparison a much more respectable Bird, and withal a true original Native of America... He is besides, though a little vain & silly, a Bird of Courage, and would not hesitate to attack a Grenadier of the British Guards who should presume to invade his Farm Yard with a red Coat on.”

I like thinking of the flock of turkeys out back as creatures who have refused to bow before power, as wily survivors that have not yielded their wildness. Benjamin Franklin probably wrote his letter in only half-seriousness, but his choice for the fledgling democracy rings true to me.

Great Kids, Great Outdoors” is an AMC Outdoors blog, written by Kristen Laine.

Saturday, November 21, 2009

The Mother of Nature Education

A couple of years ago, Jim picked up a book he thought I’d like at a library sale. It was a thick old book, stained and worn. At the time, I barely glanced at it as he put it on my shelf.

Over time, though, its title caught my eye: Handbook of Nature-Study. Above the title, in smaller capital letters, I could read the author’s name: Anna Botsford Comstock. Every once in a while, I'd become curious about the book and would pull it off the shelf and browse it. I noticed the detailed illustration of a cobweb that marked the cover, the publication date of 1911, and counted more than 900 pages of lessons about the natural world. But I didn’t actually read anything in it until a few months ago, when I was looking for information about squirrels. (From the section on the gray squirrel: “He is a little pirate and enjoys stealing from others with the keenest zest.”) Then I realized that I had a classic on my shelf.

Anna Botsford Comstock, I’ve since learned, is known as the mother of nature education. The first female professor at Cornell University, hired in 1897, she was also an accomplished illustrator: It’s her engraving of the spider web that graces the cover of my book. Her Handbook of Nature-Study grew out of pamphlets that she wrote for Cornell’s newly created Extension Service. To publish the book, Comstock and her husband, an entomologist, formed the Comstock Publishing Company. (Its motto: “Nature through Books.”) They fully expected to lose money in the endeavor; instead, the handbook was translated into 8 languages and became a standard textbook, published in numerous editions over half a century. Anna Comstock wrote the book in a conversational style that was knowledgeable about children and teachers as well as plants and animals. She believed that the best way to teach children about the natural world was to take them outside and let them observe it for themselves — a notion we are rediscovering nearly a century after her handbook was first published.

Here’s a short section, called “Nature-Study, the Elixir of Youth,” from the beginning of the book:

The old teacher is too likely to become didactic, dogmatic, and “bossy” if she does not constantly strive with herself. Why? She has to be thus five days in the week and, therefore, she is likely to be so seven. She knows arithmetic, grammar, and geography to their uttermost, she is never allowed to forget that she knows them, and finally her interests become limited to what she knows.

After all, what is the chief sign of growing old? Is it not the feeling that we know all there is to be known? It is not years which make people old; it is ruts, and a limitation of interests. When we no longer care about anything except our own interests, we are then old, it matters not whether our years be twenty or eighty. It is rejuvenation for the teacher, thus growing old, to stand ignorant as a child in the presence of one of the simplest of nature’s miracles — the formation of a crystal, the evolution of the butterfly from the caterpillar, the exquisite adjustment of the silken lines in the spider’s orb web. I know how to “make magic” for the teacher who is growing old. Let her go out with her youngest pupil and reverently watch with him the miracle of the blossoming violet and say: “Dear Nature, I know naught of the wondrous life of these, your smallest creatures. Teach me!” and she will suddenly find herself young.

What was true for the teacher then strikes me as true for the teacher today. And the power of nature continues to make magic, both for children who quietly, unconsciously absorb its lessons and for children who go outside with “keenest zest.”

Learn more
Anna Botsford Comstock was inducted into the Conservation Hall of Fame in 1988 by the National Wildlife Federation.

Great Kids, Great Outdoors” is an AMC Outdoors blog, written by Kristen Laine.

Wednesday, November 18, 2009

Chop Wood, Carry Water

“Magical power,
marvelous action!
Chopping wood,
carrying water....”

These lines from a 1,000-year-old Zen Buddhist poem came to me last Sunday while Virgil and I stacked wood. I handed him a chunk of wood from a wheelbarrow and he flung it onto a growing stack along the side of the garage. We emptied the wheelbarrow and pushed it back up the road to where Ursula and Jim were trading off swinging a splitting maul, and where a new pile of freshly split red oak awaited us.

We were taking advantage of T-shirt weather to cut up a big red oak that fell during a storm last spring. If we were living by old traditions on the land, we would have bucked up the tree into sections and split the wood right then, as a gift of the season between the busy times of maple sugaring and planting. By all rights, it should have been drying out all summer and fall. We’re no woodsmen, but we do have a fireplace, and the day offered an opportunity to connect with those old ways.

Neither Jim nor I grew up chopping wood. I was a suburban kid, and a girl. My father, who had grown up around axes and saws and splitting mauls, made sure that my younger brothers learned how to handle these tools, but he didn’t think to include me in the lessons, and I didn’t think to want them. I still feel uncertain and timid when I pick up a long-handled splitting maul. But Jim learned how to split wood and handle a chain saw in college, and it was his confidence and his skill that I counted on for Ursula and Virgil.

Jim showed them how to stand back, square to the chopping block, and how to let the weight of the splitting maul do much of the work. He pointed out the grain and explained that they wanted to cut in the same direction, and to hit to the side of knots rather than through them. I’d worried that Virgil wasn’t ready to handle such a dangerous tool, but watching Jim guide him, and seeing how carefully Virgil followed his advice, eased my fears. The first time Virgil successfully split a piece, he looked gleeful.

Ursula has split wood with Jim before. Her pleasure, on Sunday, came from being able to trade turns with her dad. She stood tall, lifted, swung, split, stepped to the side while Jim split a section, and moved back into place again.

Standing there, I was grateful that our children are getting the chance to learn these skills and to have this connection to the land.

That tree now fills several long rows in the garage. Fresh wood is almost half water. Firewood should contain no more than 25 percent water. Now that we’ve split the wood, it should be dry enough to use in a couple of months. This morning, though, Jim lit a fire in the fireplace, mixing in some of the freshly cut red oak. The wood sizzled and steamed as the moisture inside it escaped, but it still threw off plenty of heat. The kids got dressed for school in front of the fire. Ursula asked for a shoulder and back rub; her muscles ache from Sunday’s work.

Old-timers have another saying around here: Firewood warms you twice — once when you split it and again when you burn it. Thinking back to Sunday, I might say that it warmed us more than that: once when we split it, twice when we stacked it, a third time when we burned it, and now, a fourth time as I remember bringing it in together.

Learn more
Basic instructions on splitting wood (geared to adults).

Great Kids, Great Outdoors” is an AMC Outdoors blog, written by Kristen Laine.

Saturday, November 14, 2009

Lions and Fireballs in the Night Sky

Last month I promised to write more about the Leonid meteor showers, which are scheduled to appear on our cosmic horizon on Tuesday, November 17.

Astronomers call the Leonids “the most famous of the unreliable showers.” They’re named for the constellation Leo, where they appear to originate. In the night sky, Leo belongs in what H. A. Rey (of Curious George fame) in his classic star-gazing book, The Stars, named “Carnivore’s Corner.” Leo (the Lion) revolves around Ursa Major, the Great Bear, along with other hunting animals, the Little Bear, Lynx, Dragon, and Hunting Dogs. They follow the Great Bear into “hibernation” — out of easy viewing — during the fall and winter.

The Leonids are called “unreliable” for meteorological reasons: They can’t be counted on for good viewing, even in what are supposed to be peak years. Part of what makes the Leonids unreliable is that their cosmic debris streams don’t hit the earth in a predictable pattern, and astronomers can’t tell with any certainty when the shower faucet is wide open — when the most meteors enter the earth’s atmosphere — or when it’s a slow trickle.

In a logistical sense, the Leonids are an unreliable viewing experience because we can’t simply step out our front doors at bedtime and see the showers. Right now, Leo doesn’t appear in the night sky until around midnight, when the lion’s head pokes up over the eastern horizon line. Between midnight and dawn, the lion walks upside down around the rotating bear. The best viewing hours conflict, oh, only slightly with a good night’s sleep. However, at dawn, the constellation hangs in the middle of the sky, and this may be the most efficient choice for seeing the shower.

The Leonids are called “famous” for good reason, though. A spectacular Leonid shower over northeastern North America on November 12, 1833, sparked the beginning of modern astronomy. “A tempest of falling stars,” wrote one contemporary observer. In Boston, people compared the frequency of meteors during the shower’s peak to the number of snowflakes in a winter snowstorm. Many who saw 10,000 “falling stars” in a single hour thought the day of judgment had arrived and wondered if any stars would be left in the sky after the cataclysm had ended. In fact, historians credit the shower of 1833 with helping spark the religious revivals that swept the United States over the next decade. I guess we could say that religious intensity in the country had a “meteoric” rise...

It was later established that major Leonid showers recurred at 33-year intervals, with a lesser annual shower that produces as few as 20 or 30 meteors an hour, and occasional “half-storm” events of around 500 meteors an hour at their peak. The Leonids orbit in a direction opposite to that of Earth. So the meteors slam into our atmosphere nearly head-on, resulting in extremely fast, very bright meteors, which leave long, luminous, green-tinted trails in their wake.

We’re being told to check the sky three times for this year’s shower: before dawn on the morning of Tuesday, November 17, in case there’s unusual activity leading up to the peak; when the radiant passes the horizon, between 10 pm and midnight across North America; and in the hours before dawn on Wednesday, November 18. The moon is new, so we’ll have good viewing for whatever comes our way.

The most recent major shower occurred in 1999, when observers saw 3,000 meteors an hour at the peak. The next major show won’t come our way until 2032, but astronomers are predicting that the 2009 showers may be similar to the “half-storm” showers of 1998, which became known for their spectacular horizon-grazing fireballs. If so, we may see 500 meteors in an hour — not enough to make us think the world is ending, perhaps, but enough not to mind a few hours of lost sleep.

Learn more
NASA's predictions for the 2009 Leonid meteor showers
"Strong outburst expected" (National Geographic, November 13, 2009)
"Lessons from a missed meteor shower"

Great Kids, Great Outdoors” is an AMC Outdoors blog, written by Kristen Laine.

Wednesday, November 11, 2009

A Spoonful of Sugar

One glorious day. Sometimes it’s all you get.

We’ve had very few outdoor adventures together as a family since summer ended, in spite of our vows to the contrary. School and work limit our excursions to weekends, which is OK, except that all fall we’ve stacked our weekends with obligations. Any day we manage to pry free brings a downpour and heavy winds, or so it seems.

We've felt the season, and our promises, slipping away. So last week Jim took a look at the forecast and our schedule and rented us a farmhouse on Squam Lake for Saturday night. We’d hike in the Squam Range on Saturday and paddle the lake by canoe on Sunday. Two full days of family adventure.

But on Friday, the school nurse sent Virgil home with a fever that turned into a cold by Saturday. Our early start and day of hiking became lunch at the farmhouse and an afternoon of games in front of the fire. Virgil retreated to a sleeping bag on the couch. We were having a family day, alright, but not what Jim and I had imagined. Outside, the day went on without us, unseasonably warm under hazy skies. If there was a brilliant sunset, we missed it.

On Sunday, Virgil felt well enough to come out in the canoe. Well enough, if not happy. We persevered, put the canoe in the water and lunch in the canoe, and paddled off along the shoreline. The sky was clearer than the day before, the sun even warmer, the breeze milder. The water had changed color with the season: no longer a bright cobalt, it had deepened into a rich navy hue, sparkling in the sunshine. Looking into its depths, we could make out plants and rocks on the lake bottom. Everywhere along the shore, the leaves had dropped from the trees. With the thick bumper of green gone, we could see through trunks of pine and hemlock to the bones of the land behind.

We pulled up the canoe on a sandy beach. Ursula tried wading, but hopped back to shore with a howl: “It’s freezing!” The water might be too cold for swimming, but the season was offering up other gifts. Jim pointed out that back in the summer, the water’s edge had extended far up on the beach. Sloping granite shelves, submerged then, now made a fine gangplank, which the kids walked happily to its very end. We followed a leaf-covered path along the shore, noticing winterberry and busy chipmunks. Out on the water, we saw but a single boat and no other people. We heard a loon call and watched it dive and return to the surface with something shiny in its mouth. In another month, the loons will have flown to the coast and skim ice will be forming along the lakeshore. But for one sweet day, we shared the lake with them.

On Monday, the school nurse called shortly after the start of the school day. Virgil had a slight fever, she said. Best to keep him home another day. After lunch, she called again: Ursula had a fever, too. The flu has not yet run its course in our house, but the image of that big lake in the sun, and our children standing on granite, buoys me still.

One glorious day. Sometimes it’s all you need.

Great Kids, Great Outdoors” is an AMC Outdoors blog, written by Kristen Laine.

Friday, November 6, 2009

How much TV is too much?

“Kids Watching More Television” blared the headline in my local paper last week. Nielsen, the company that tracks TV viewing, had issued a report on the average hours per week that children spent in front of a TV screen during the last quarter of 2008. Another headline — “Toddlers watch 32 hours of TV a week” — summarized the news on TV-viewing by 2- to 5-year-olds; 28 hours was the number for children 6 to 11.

I had to read to the very end of the article to find the actual increase: Young children increased their daily TV-viewing by 7 minutes between 2007 and 2008; over the same time period, older children spent 3 more minutes a day watching TV.

What’s surprising — and maybe what’s newsworthy — is not the size of the change but that the number hasn’t gone down. Over the past quarter-century, the American Academy of Pediatrics has issued increasingly specific guidelines on television watching by children. (The pediatrician’s group now recommends that children under the age of 2 watch no TV, and that older children watch no more than 1 to 2 hours a day.) Academic journals regularly publish articles that link this level of TV-watching among children with increased risks for obesity, attention problems, lower grades, violent behavior, body-image problems, sexualized behavior, alcohol and cigarette use, and drug abuse — and that doesn’t include issues specific to the youngest viewers, such as delays in language acquisition. This information filters down to us in all kinds of ways, including newspaper articles like the one I read last week. And what do we do? We watch more TV.

The Nielsen statistics don’t exactly reflect my own family’s situation. We don’t watch what the folks at Nielsen call “live TV.” But we understand the attraction, and we’re not immune to its effects. We have a TV — we call it “the TV” even though it receives no channels — that we use to watch DVDs and videos. Our children know the rule: No TV on school nights. When Ursula was a baby, I was fastidious about monitoring her time in front of a screen. Virgil, on the other hand, was 2 years old when I started writing a book and 4 when I finished. He watched a lot of videos during that time (although much less than 5 hours a day, which is about what 32 hours a week comes to). Is it meaningful, then, that Ursula wanders away from TVs and likes to spend a lot of time outside, and that Virgil rarely goes outside on his own and always seems to be asking whether he can watch a movie? Sometimes, when we’re crunched with deadlines, we relent, even on a school night. And so we perpetuate a problem we may have created.

It’s hard to talk about this issue without sounding preachy. But every hour our children watch TV is one hour less that they can spend connecting with what we used to call the real world, which includes other people, physical objects, and the natural world. “The biggest misconception is that it’s harmless entertainment,” said Dr. Vic Strasburger, a spokesman for the American Academy of Pediatrics, in the newspaper article. He also said, “Kids should not be watching five hours a day. They should be outside playing. They should be having books read to them.”

Here’s the question I come to: Do we not know enough yet to acknowledge the number of hours we spend watching television as a social problem? I hesitate to make the analogy, but I think of drinking. Adults in our country have had the freedom to drink socially since Prohibition was repealed. We allow for some number of people who are unable to control their drinking; we establish guidelines for drunkenness; and we prohibit children from drinking. I look at the numbers on television-watching, though, and I wonder: Has our TV-watching passed the equivalent of social drinking? What happens when we become a nation of alcoholics?

Learn more

• The report from Nielsen.
• Bullet points on TV watching and issues related to it. The information is slightly dated (from 2000) but well presented.
• A summary of the 2008 Nielsen report.
• Children & Nature Network includes links to research on the effects of TV-watching on children's experience of the outdoors, including a report on "Generation M" by the Kaiser Family Foundation.

Great Kids, Great Outdoors” is an AMC Outdoors blog, written by Kristen Laine.

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