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A new program works to get kids out of the house and into the woods

Tuesday, April 17, 2007 | 12:00 a.m. CDT; updated 6:21 a.m. CDT, Tuesday, July 22, 2008
Sybill Amelon, of the U.S. Forest Service, presented her two bats to fifth-graders at Lee Elementary School as part of the SEEDS program, developed to connect students with nature.

Richard Louv’s best-selling book begins with a quote from a fourth-grader: “I like to play indoors better ’cause that’s where all the electrical outlets are.”

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In the “Last Child in the Woods,” Louv coined the term “nature deficit disorder.” The social diagnosis has caught on nationally, and Louv’s fans include Dale Hall, national director of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.

Hall asked all the regional fish and wildlife offices around the country “to come up with innovative and creative ways to connect children with nature,” said Ashley Spratt of the agency’s Midwest regional office in Columbia.

Spratt and others developed a program called SEEDS ?— Students, the Environment and Endangered Species and launched the program Monday by bringing endangered gray bats to Lee Elementary School to connect the fifth-graders with things that don’t plug into the wall.

“Today’s children are disconnected from nature and more interested by things that are indoors — computers, TV — and they don’t know what’s outdoors,” Spratt said.

Teresa Vandover, principal of Lee Elementary, said it’s not the same to identify as to experience nature. She compared her generation with the students going through her school.

“We had the freedom to be out there in nature,” she said.

During her 30 years in education, Vandover said, she has seen changes in how children can connect with nature. She said that PTA newsletters these days include warnings of kidnappings and sexual predators, issues that lend themselves to the perception that it’s more dangerous for kids to roam outside than when she was a child.

In an interview with Salon.com, Louv recognized the dangers that children face, but said that allowing a child to play outdoors builds “self-confidence, independence and the sense that they can exist in the world and are somewhere bigger than their parents and their problems.”

The book works like a guide to help parents get their children into the natural world. Part of the effort begins in schools where students can connect to the environment.

After the outdoor presentation, Sybill Amelon, of the U.S. Forest Service, presented Chewbacca and Pinky, two gray bats, a species found in nearby caves. The children sat quietly until Amelon asked who wanted to touch the bat’s wing.

Tarus Moore, 11, couldn’t remember the last time he touched a wild animal. He remembered touching a bird once, but said he thinks it was dead. “The bat felt really hairy and the wing was kinda smooth, but kinda rough,” he said.

He has vivid memories of one outdoor experience: a family camping trip. “Squirrels took our food and our chocolate chip cookies,” he said. “I ran them up the trees.”

Scott said he hopes to bring the SEEDS program to other Columbia schools in the future.

The program is scheduled to continue for a few more days at Lee Elementary. The students today are scheduled to see a live Topeka shiner and pallid sturgeon, both endangered, and live raptors on Friday.

There will be a SEEDS book fair from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. Saturday at Barnes & Noble with members of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. The fair will raise money for Lee Elementary’s media center to buy wildlife books.


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