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Children and nature
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People who grew up before the cellular, Internet and digital revolution most likely often heard their mothers or fathers say, "go outside and play and don't come home until it's dark."

However technology, test scores and fear are preventing the children of today from making mud pies, racing bicycles and climbing trees.

Friends of Newton Parks and Friends of the Library, along with more than a dozen other organizational sponsors, hosted guest speaker Cheryl Charles Tuesday evening at the Newton County Public Library.

"For the very first time in all of human history children are not playing outdoors regularly," Charles said.

 Charles is president and co-founder of the Children & Nature Network, an organization which seeks to reconnect children to the great outdoors, which was spawned by the Richard Louv book "Last Child in the Woods."

"The purpose of this gathering is to increase awareness and support for our park we'll build behind the library," said Barbara Morgan, president of Friends of Newton Parks.

Charles and her colleagues advocate research which shows children who spend time outside are healthier, happier and do better in school.

 Louv, also co-founder of the C&NN, coined the term "nature deficit disorder" to describe the negative effects less time outdoors has on children.

 "Richard is the first person to say nature deficit disorder is not a medical diagnosis," Charles said. "It's just a term."

 Today far less children walk or ride bicycles to school, partly because schools are too far away from their home.

 Charles said children playing outdoors less could explain increased percentages of obese children over the past few decades. She cited one study which stated only 4 percent of children ages 8 to 18 were obese in the 1960s, were as now the national average hovers around 20 percent.

 With obesity comes a variety of other health problems such as high cholesterol, childhood diabetes and a number of heart-related ailments.

 Video games, the Web and i-Pods have also lead children to lead more sedentary lifestyles.

 "I'm not anti-technology, but research is showing that children ages 8 to 18 are spending 40 to 60 hours a week hooked into what I call the 'electronic umbilica,'" Charles said.

Researchers of the impact of technology on children have also pointed to the rise in the diagnosis of hyperactivity and Attention Deficit Disorder.

Charles mentioned a study which suggested symptoms of ADD could be mitigated by regular exposure to nature. She added pediatricians should perhaps prescribe outdoor play rather than pills for behavioral afflictions.

She also said schools have lost ground in nature education in the last ten years, and many elementary schools do not even offer recess anymore because rigorous standards have to be met and dozens of tests taken.

However, Charles again referenced a study showing science scores on standardized tests increased 27 percent when children learned in outdoor classrooms. Coincidentally, Newton County students scored lowest on the science portion of the Criterion-Referenced Competency Test and on the Georgia High School Graduation Test.

Charles said local board of educations are the avenue to approving more outdoor education, but that parents needed to take the initiative in donating material or picking up a hammer for the construction or planting of outdoor classrooms or green spaces.

Another report mention by Charles showed one-third of parents cited they did not let their child play outside because they were afraid of child abduction. Charles said the media has skewed the frequency of these occurrences in the country.

Parents are also guilty of over-structuring their children's extracurricular activities, which does not leave them enough important free-time to explore the wilderness as they choose.

She added what children see on television and what they do not learn in school leads them to be scared of what they may find in the woods.

 Charles said all ages need to enjoy the great outdoors, not only children.

 "Some say it's built into us as part of our DNA," Charles said.

 Studies cite hospital patients reporting less pain and logging shorter stays when they had an outside view.

 Also, two identical project buildings in Chicago stood side by side, but one had trees planted around it while the other was all concrete. Fewer instances of crime and higher self-esteem was reported at the one with trees

She said healthy communities are the foundation of peace, and healthy communities started with healthy children.

"All these risks indicate that this will be the first generation that does not live as long as their parents, and I think that's not the legacy we want to leave," Charles said. "I want our generation to be the one that leaves a legacy of leadership and ecology of hope."

Charles concluded by saying she felt hopeful Newton County could shift the direction of some of the trends she mentioned in her speech with the construction of the community park between the library and the Newton County Mental Health Facility.

Plans for the park include three exploration trails, a splash fountain, a garden in the ruins of a historic home, an amphitheater, a storytelling circle, a large tree house, a splash fountain, huge chimes and 10 exercise stations.

The park, born out of the desire of residents Mike and Kelli Hopkins for their daughters who use wheelchairs, will cater to all generations and abilities.