Office of National Marine Sanctuaries
Ocean Education Programs Rekindle Our Bond with Nature

by Michiko Martin and Seaberry Nachbar
Office of National Marine Sanctuaries

The gust of wind carried the grand arch of balloons away from the confines of the city garbage bin. The students of Pacific Grove Middle School in Pacific Grove, Calif., did not delight in their flight. Not cheers, but gasps, escaped from the children's mouths as they watched the balloons drift away beyond their reach.

The reason for their concern, explained middle school student Marissa Martinez, is that the balloons would float offshore into the nearby Monterey Bay National Marine Sanctuary, where animals would mistake them for food and eat them.

The students learned about the problem after their teacher, Kelly Terry, nominated the school to the Office of National Marine Sanctuaries' Ocean Guardian Schools Program. "I had a sense that since we can see the ocean from our school, we should definitely be ocean guardians," Terry said. Today, as part of their Ocean Guardian School commitment to protect the ocean, the students take a pledge to help reduce marine debris.

"Even if a balloon released into the ocean doesn't harm an animal," said student Lexi Rohrer, "it could end up in the Great Pacific Garbage Patch."

Armed with the knowledge of how runaway balloons can harm ocean wildlife, these young ocean guardians decided to take action. They organized a letter-writing campaign and collected signatures for a petition, urging both their school and the Pacific Grove City Council to ban latex balloons at outdoor activities.

"Our school is an Ocean Guardians school, and we are trying to keep our area free of litter," wrote student Luke Hiserman, author of the petition. "We would like to propose that it be illegal to have balloons in Pacific Grove at public events because we are so close to the ocean."

The city council agreed and has since banned all balloons at outdoor events. In addition, the school has prohibited large balloon bouquets on campus.

Fighting "Nature-Deficit Disorder"
The students of Pacific Grove Middle School stand in proud defiance of the widening gulf between people and nature. Author Richard Louv addressed that gulf in his bestselling book Last Child in the Woods, which sparked a national debate that led to a growing movement to reconnect children with nature.

Coining the term "Nature-Deficit Disorder," Louv described the growing divide between children and their environment and the significant negative consequences of this gap: "An increasing pace in the last three decades, approximately, of a rapid disengagement between children and direct experiences in nature... This has profound implications, not only for the health of future generations but for the health of the Earth itself."

The outdoors have increasingly lost their relevance in the lives of our children, who now spend only half as much time outside as their parents did, but who spend an average of seven hours a day using electronic devices. In his remarks at the April 2010 White House Conference that launched the America's Great Outdoors Initiative, President Obama cautioned that "[w]e are losing our connection to the parks, wild places, and open spaces we grew up with and cherish."

People who are disconnected from nature are less likely to be committed to - and involved in - stewardship of the environment. Environmental psychologist Louise Chawla believes that early nature experiences are essential to produce tomorrow's leaders of change; for most environmentalists, it was a deep connection to nature formed early in life that inspired their later work.

Nature's Medicine
Reconnecting our children to nature is vitally important to developing tomorrow's leaders and stewards. But the health of the environment may not be the only thing at stake. A growing body of research suggests that the great outdoors positively impact our own health and well-being, as well.

Nature can help protect children against stress and adversity, according to a 2003 study by Cornell University environmental psychologists Nancy Wells and Gary Evans. "Our study finds that life's stressful events appear not to cause as much psychological distress in children who live in high-nature conditions compared with children who live in low-nature conditions," said Wells.

In 2000, Wells conducted another study that found that being close to nature also helps boost a child's attention span. Previous studies have similarly found that time spent in the great outdoors is linked to better psychological well-being, improved mental function, fewer illnesses and speedier recovery. Louv supports those ideas in his books, explaining that by tapping into the restorative powers of nature we can boost mental sharpness and creativity; promote health and wellness; build better and more sustainable businesses, communities, and economies; and ultimately strengthen human bonds.

Innovative Sanctuary Programs
Encouraging children to experience nature and fostering a sense of responsibility for our environment is at the core of educational programming in the national marine sanctuaries. Sanctuaries enable people of all ages to experience the wonder and beauty of the natural world firsthand, and help instill a deep appreciation for the people, stories and traditions of these special places.

As the efforts like the NOAA Ocean Guardian Schools Program prove, children who feel personally connected to their environment become passionate stewards of the great outdoors. Their hands-on experiences with a world beyond computers, cell phones and game consoles motivates the students to care and protect - whether through recycling, discouraging single-use plastic shopping bags, or speaking up in the fight to keep trash out of the ocean we all share.

Prominent environmental activist Robert F. Kennedy, Jr. summed it up well in Louv's book, Last Child in the Woods: "Our children ought to be out there on the water. This is what connects us, this is what connects humanity, this is what we have in common. It's not the Internet, it's the oceans."

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