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Urban Ecology Center Study: The Value of Connecting Kids to the Natural World

S Bence

Most kids are back in school by now; that means their outdoor play time is dramatically reduced. That assumes, of course, that children actually spend time playing outside and exploring nature. Data suggests otherwise. 

“Children don’t play outdoors on their own very much at all,” Cheryl Charles says. She’s co-founder of the international outreach organization Children & Nature Network.

"They tend to go from an indoor environment at school to an indoor environment at home or even at a neighborhood center,” she says.

About 75 percent of preschool age children in the United States are enrolled in child care centers, “and of those, barely half get outdoors every day,” Charles says.” And not just are they not outdoors, they are sedentary. "

The numbers don’t improve as the children enter elementary school, “trends are that recess is being eliminated, there are indicators of sedentary, overweight, hooked into electronic media, on average 7.5 hours a week now for 8 to 18 year olds," she says.

Getting Kids Outside

But organizations such as Milwaukee's Urban Ecology Center are out to change that.

Its branches – one east of the Milwaukee River off Locust Street, another in Washington Park, and a third in the Menomonee Valley – work with neighborhood schools to help connect kids to the urban natural world.

The outdoor educators at the UEC wanted data to prove what they intuitively believed – kids that explore nature on a regular basis don’t fear it, they are excited about it.

So, before their Menomonee Valley location opened in 2012, UEC decided to study kids’ attitudes about spending time outdoors. They surveyed 365 neighborhood school children before UEC's new location was launched and a nearby natural space opened and, again, after everything was up and running.

UEC's Beth Heller says the finding that excited her most is that kids get over being afraid - of wildlife, getting dirty and scary people.

"Our most important finding is that kids love and value nature," Urban Ecology Center's director of education Beth Heller says on UEC's website. "Generally speaking, they believe it makes them healthier, teaches them new things, calms them down when they are upset, and offers them freedom, excitement, and yes, time to be dirty."

“The other number that I love is that kids are three times more likely to come back and visit outside of the school day than the kids that never came on a field trip,” Heller says.

Collaborator Kirsten Beyer reports encouraging data among kids who were not part of Urban Ecology Center classes.

“They said, oh yes, we found the park and that it’s a place that we can go outside and play,” Beyer says.

Cheryl Charles says exploring nature also stimulates a child’s creativity, “and over time, that experience enhances a child’s confidence and if they’re outdoors they learn how to negotiate risk and if they’re playing with other kids, they learn to negotiate rules.”

Studying Outdoor Play

Credit S Bence
(Left to right) Kristen Beyer, Beth Heller and Cheryl Charles discussed the importance of children learning to explore nature.

Kirsten Beyer, assistant professor in the Division of Epidemiology at the Institute for Health and Society, served as the study’s principal investigator. Beyer says early research revealed that their study, called More than a Pretty Place, was more unique than they realized.

“What we wanted to measure was knowledge and attitudes about outdoor play in nature; and what we quickly discovered was that there weren’t too many measures about that,” Beyer says.

So the team devised their own.

“We developed an 'attitudes toward outdoor play' scale and it has two parts. One about benefits, or the beliefs and benefits of outdoor play and nature, and the other part is about the fears,” Beyer says. Beyer and Beth Heller have shared the More than a Pretty Place study with their peers at the International Medical Geography Symposium, as well as The Global Summit on the Physical Activity of Children.

Beyer says they had a whole day dedicated to active play, “but we didn’t see as much research there as we would have hoped about outdoor nature play.”

She says that’s proof that the work launched in Milwaukee needs to be done.

“I believe there is a story here, and lessons learned here that will help people throughout the United States and potentially beyond, because we’re an urbanizing planet. People throughout the world are increasingly living in urban environments and so this kind of model makes sense beyond Milwaukee,” Cheryl Charles of Child & Nature Network says.

What’s Next?

Beth Heller hopes the Urban Ecology Center study will help build strong evidence of the value of connecting kids to nature, “we’re part of global issue here in Milwaukee and I hope that other cities and other communities will embrace and understand the critical element of connecting kids to nature throughout their childhood.”

Kirsten Beyer adds, “the consequences of that could be wonderful for mental health, but also for cardiovascular disease, for cancer, for all sorts of other illnesses and ailments that we deal with in society.”

It is, she says “a global issue and it’s a big deal.”

Credit S Bence
What could it be?

Susan Bence entered broadcasting in an untraditional way. After years of avid public radio listening, Susan returned to school and earned a bachelor's degree in Journalism from the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee. She interned for WUWM News and worked with the Lake Effect team, before being hired full-time as a WUWM News reporter / producer.
Michelle was named WUWM's digital manager in August of 2021.