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The Wichita Eagle

No Child Left Inside

Groundswell of efforts aim to get kids back outside

Suzanne Perez Tobias

There's a quiet revolution happening in Wichita, a war in which the weapons are simple -- grass, dirt, water, sky -- but the goal is monumental: Saving childhood. A movement to reconnect children with nature -- some call it "No Child Left Inside" -- is gaining momentum in Kansas, with several bold new projects or proposals:

• A Rainbows United facility at K-96 and Oliver soon will unveil its 10-acre outdoor classroom and nature area designed to get kids back to nature.

• Botanica recently embarked on a capital campaign for its first major expansion -- a new children's garden expected to open in 2010.

• The No Child Left Inside Act, which would revamp No Child Left Behind guidelines and pump about $500 million in federal funding toward nature education, could come before Congress this year. More than a dozen Kansas groups have joined a coalition aimed at its passage.

• And Friday in Hesston, child care providers, health advocates, architects and others will spend the day planning and learning about "natural playscapes" -- green, growing, lower-cost alternatives to mass-market plastic playgrounds.

Author Rusty Keeler, who will lead the workshop, also will speak Friday evening at the Wichita Garden Show.

"There's definitely a movement happening," said Cathy Gray, director of Healthy Kids Kansas and one of the organizers of Friday's workshop.

"Research is showing -- and more and more people are realizing -- that children just need to play in the dirt again, run around, dig for worms. They need to be outside, moving and learning."

'It's all right there'

Four-year-old Devin Palmar isn't aware of any back-to-nature movement.

But he's a huge fan of nature. And movement.

The preschooler and his classmates at Rainbows United Kids Cove in west Wichita spent a recent morning in the school's outdoor classroom, looking at flowers, squishing dirt through their fingers and rolling, rolling, rolling down a hill.

"When you go outside, you don't need to bring anything with you," said Tina Doering, a Rainbows teacher. "It's all right there for you."

Back-to-nature advocates point to a growing body of research showing that nature has profound effects on children, including increased creativity and brain function, better coordination, balance and agility, and speedier recovery from illness.

But in recent years, many schools have shifted their focus inward, opting for gyms over open fields, banishing live animals from classrooms and dropping recess and field trips.

"We all feel in our hearts and our bones that it's a good idea to have kids interacting with nature, but we've gotten away from that," said Keeler, a New Yorker who is founder of Planet Earth Playscapes.

'Nature-Deficit Disorder'

Keeler's work and his book, "Natural Playscapes," was inspired by what he saw while working in the Netherlands for a Danish play equipment manufacturer.

"Every school I saw had some fixed equipment, but also hills and bushes and water and sand," he said. "I was really amazed by how communities would work together to build these beautiful places... and the kids just loved them."

He returned to the United States on a mission to reconnect kids with nature, a mission that garnered national attention in 2005 with Richard Louv's landmark book, "Last Child in the Woods: Saving Our Children from Nature-Deficit Disorder."

"That was the tipping point," Keeler said. "Everyone might have been feeling these things secretly. But when that book came out, everyone said, 'Yes!' And suddenly, everyone started finding each other."

Through his book and its offshoot nonprofit group -- the Children and Nature Network -- Louv argues that it's not only computers, television and video games that are keeping kids inside. It's also parents' fears of traffic, child abductions and West Nile virus; schools' emphasis on testing, homework and buses over walks or bike rides; families' structured schedules; and kids' lack of access to natural areas.

Gray, a Wichita mom who works to prevent childhood obesity through Healthy Kids Kansas, said she hopes more talk about the benefits of nature will inspire more families to get outside.

"We've gotten into such a consumer mindset that we think we have to buy toys for kids to play," she said. "We need to get outside with them and let them be creative and active.... Let them be kids."

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