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Survival in the 21st Century

07/10/2015 14:55 ● Published by Sandy Kauten

If you have young people in your life, you know how it feels to worry. On a particularly bad day, all you have to do is scan the headlines on your smartphone and your anxiety meter will skyrocket before you even get out of bed. And kids worry too. Whether it’s partly in fun (think Zombie apocalypse or all the dystopian fiction they read) or more serious (kids suing the government to demand action on climate change), young people also live and breathe those scary “headlines” every day.

So what’s a concerned grown-up to do? How can we help the kids we care about (and ourselves) feel more positive about survival in the 21st century, whether it’s tomorrow or 50 years from now?

Fortunately, there are lots of ways we can think constructively and act hopefully with respect to the future, and many of them have to do with spending time in nature nearby. From playing outside, to working in a garden, to participating in a park caretaking project, people of all ages feel happier and healthier when they  connect directly with the world under their feet.

Play Outside: When you take a walk outside after a rough day at work, bad news on the radio, or an argument at home, how do you feel? Probably better. Simply said, spending time outside reduces stress. And when you feel less stressed, you are healthier and can think more clearly about how to solve problems, fix messes, and move on to the next thing. To help your kids move forward positively in life, make sure they get a regular dose of outside play time at home (the equivalent of your steam-venting walk), especially when they’re having difficulty in school, with friends, at home, or with life in general.  You can also supplement family outside time with outdoor daycamps during the summer and after-school programs and no-school-day adventures during the school year. When kids learn to use this simple anxiety-reducing trick early in in life (go outside!), they will take it with them into adulthood, and learn that staying healthy and reducing stress in the present helps you move more forward positively into the future. 

Work in a Garden: There is no place more positive than a garden. In a garden, the world turns from brown to green, seeds miraculously morph into food, and bees find the nectar they need to make sweet honey. And a garden doesn’t have to be big or even your own to make you feel better – a small planter box of mint for making tea or an afternoon spent helping a neighbor pick cherry tomatoes can do wonders for raising the spirits. For kids, working in and eating from a garden provides a window into a world of self-sufficiency. They learn that food comes from the earth and that they are capable of growing it themselves. If you don’t have your own garden, find a friend who will share, visit a community garden, or enroll your child in a camp or class that includes gardening. Nearby Nature, for example, has a Learnscape Garden that it shares with kids in its programs throughout the year. Many schools also have gardens these days, thanks to the School Garden Project, so be sure to support the folks who run your school’s garden program starting in the fall.

Participate in a Park Caretaking Project: According to the 2010 census, 80.7% of Americans currently live in urban areas (71.2% of these in areas with populations of 50,000 or more). The truth is, most of us are going to live in cities and towns for most of our lives. We won’t all be escaping the craziness of modern life and moving into the wild any time soon. Because people of all ages thrive when they are able to spend time outdoors, however, a great way to help yourself and the young people in your life feel hopeful about the future is to work on a caretaking project in a common natural space in your urban neighborhood. Many local groups organize restoration or little patrol work parties that are both safe and fun for all ages. See the websites for groups like Nearby Nature (in Alton Baker Park), the Friends of Hendricks Park, and Friends of Buford Park and Mount Pisgah, as well the City of Eugene Park Stewards and Springfield’s Willamalane for information on caretaking projects in local parks. Caring for a publicly owned common space helps kids learn early on that they have the power to make their communities healthier as well as the ability to connect with nature in a positive way throughout their lives, even if they live in a city.

—Beth Stein is the Executive Director for Nearby Nature, a non-profit education group dedicated to fostering appreciation of nature nearby and providing tools for ecological living. The group hosts summer daycamps in local parks as well as school programs, special events, and restoration projects. For more information, call 541-687-9699 or www.nearbynature.org.

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