AFSOC leads charge against "nature-deficit disorder"

  • Published
  • By Airman 1st Class Joe McFadden
  • 1st Special Operations Wing Public Affairs
It's four in the afternoon, and the children at Hurlburt Field are ready to play. Like many children, they have many options for their free time.

Rather than watch others compete in sports on TV or emulate it through a virtual world, they're outside playing with friends amidst the shaded trees, wood structures and dirt pathways at the Hurlburt Field Youth Center outdoor classroom.

Throughout 2010, the children of Air Force Special Operations Command Airmen have branded this location as their destination for imagination and discovery. And months after the youth center became the 29th Arbor Day Foundation and Dimensions Educational Research Foundation-certified Nature Explore classroom in the country, the base library and child development center rooms also gained certification.

These classrooms are not just three of 50 certified in the United States, but the only ones in the state of Florida and the U.S. military. They will soon be joined by classrooms at Cannon Air Force Base, N.M., along with approximately 160 in progress across the country.

Ever since these classrooms began, AFSOC has been on the leading edge of a new movement that's revolutionizing the way children are reintroduced to nature, not just at Hurlburt Field and Cannon AFB, but throughout the world.

"I'm very excited that we at AFSOC stepped forward and are leading the Department of Defense in this initiative," said Donna Love, from AFSOC manpower and personnel directorate  and a former elementary school teacher. "You can only feel good about children around the world getting the mental, physical, emotional and spiritual benefits of connecting to nature."

She also said this was especially true for children of service members who may not always get the opportunity to spend time with their parents, let alone in the outdoors.

"With research showing the healing and restorative effects of nature, the implications for Airmen and their families are immense," Mrs. Love said. "The tools we need to build resilient families, relieve depression and nurture spiritual health is just outside our doors."

One of the integral reasons she sought the funds was the prevalent research documenting the benefits children gain from outdoor activity. For example, University of Maryland researchers observed between 1981 and 2003 that children lost more than nine hours of play time and their computer use doubled in a typical week.

Throughout the last two decades, there's been a change in attitudes toward children's safety and playing outside. More children's outdoor play places have been replaced with indoor, climate-controlled areas complete with rubberized, synthetic surroundings completely devoid of natural elements like plant life and sunshine.

"The number of people who had wonderful outdoor experiences as children is getting smaller and smaller," Mrs. Love said. "Today's children are more likely to see nature on TV rather than actively participating in outdoor activities. With growing evidence that healthy people need a healthy environment, the future is uncertain. Children who grow up without ever fishing, clearing streams, hiking through woods or playing outside will become adults for whom nature is not considered important or valuable."

In fact, Richard Louv, the chairman of the Children & Nature Network, coined the term "nature-deficit disorder" to describe a lack of routine contact with nature that may result in stunted academic and developmental growth.

"The term gives us a way to consider the price children, and all of us, pay for our growing alienation from the natural world," Mr. Louv said in a keynote address at the American Academy of Pediatrics National Conference in San Francisco, Oct. 2. "Getting children outside can be good for their health, and getting them outside in nature may well offer special benefits."

In early 2009, Mrs. Love secured a grant to begin construction for the youth center's classroom. While the classrooms were designed with children in mind, Mrs. Love remarked on how the areas have been used by the base population at large.

"I have been astonished at the number of people who use the space and how it continues to grow and embrace the community," Mrs. Love said. "Since our office is adjacent to the library's classroom, I see it on a daily basis. I see young Airmen using the deck as a place to study, read, use their computer and even have pizza with their friends. Even as the weather got colder, I saw a woman just sitting on a bench watching the sun set. What was (intended) for children is meeting the need for natural space for all ages."

Players from the NBA's Miami HEAT even stopped by the youth center classroom during their 2010 training camp. Seven-foot tall players teamed with children a quarter their size to complete nature-themed games like using twigs to stack wood "cookies" and using branches to make teepees.

"It's terrific to see kids being active and being out with nature," said Erik Spoelstra, the HEAT coach. "I think that's what our country needs more than ever -- a terrific environment with so many places to play, be active and learn team-building skills. This is really fantastic for the kids."

In becoming certified, all three locations satisfied the requirements by utilizing a well-designed outdoor space, educating staff through workshops and designing the areas to increase family awareness and involvement.

"Dimensions Foundation believes that Hurlburt Field has created the perfect model for creating Nature Explore outdoor classrooms and serves as a leader and demonstration site for other military bases," said Julie Rose, the Nature Explore workshops and design consultations director. "Hurlburt (Field) and Cannon (AFB) lead the way for illustrating the power of collaboration and the impact that can have on a base."

The AFSOC classrooms' impact has even gone global. Mrs. Love and others were selected to represent Hurlburt Field among more than 70 teams from 32 nations to be a part of the World Forum Foundation's Nature Action Collaborative for Children at the Arbor Day Farm in Nebraska City, Neb., Oct. 17 through 20. The conference's purpose was to find solutions and share ideas on how to reconnect children around the world with nature.

"I feel very fortunate that a team from Hurlburt Field was selected to attend the World Forum on Nature Education," Mrs. Love said. "It was amazing to hear their stories and learn about the challenges they face." 

The single most important value in the investment will not be measured in dollars but the benefits children gain because of their interaction with their natural environment, she said.

"I am very proud of the programs," Mrs. Love said. "We are working to instill AFSOC children with that sense of wonder, excitement and contentment that comes from nature explorations. And the health benefits will remain with them for life."