Tuesday, November 22, 2011

Great Outdoors Vital to Children's Health and Education

As a city-mom shopping around for preschools, I've noticed several programs touting the kids' regular access to several acres of wilderness. One nursery school's website even features a large, colorful photograph of children running full force through a field dotted with mature trees and strewn with freshly-fallen leaves.

This emphasis on the importance of free play in nature has inspired my curiosity. Is there any hard evidence that children benefit more from playing in forest and field opposed to gym or playground? If so, what are those benefits?

One seemingly obvious benefit is to physical fitness. Indeed, there are great benefits to be had with certain types of video games, websites, board games, and many other indoor activities. But they are mostly sedentary activities. Simply being outside where there is much more space to move around in, and in nature where there tends to be more space in between points of interest compels a person to get more exercise.

In a couple of her articles on babycenter.com, anthropologist Gwen Dewar cites a few studies and provides some analysis of a potential connection between health and time spent in the great outdoors. In Kids outdoors: Beyond team spots and PE, she writes about how children in Amish and Mennoite communities tend to be leaner and stronger, and she suggests this is because of physically-engaging chores such as hauling water and chopping wood. Although Dewar is quick to point out that American children who merely live in more rural areas do not tend to be more physically fit. The idea, she insists, is to just get them outside doing anything, such as biking or hiking, rather than exclusively depending on organized sports or physical education classes to keep kids in shape. And in her article Parents stifle kids' active, outdoor play, Dewar discusses studies which suggest that more formal, adult-guided activities (opposed to free play with peers) results in kids being less active.

Much has been written about how adults in cities tend to be more active than their suburban counterparts. The simple fact that city folks have access to public transit or live within walking distance to many stores, banks, post offices, and such means that they at least walk more average steps in a day. When Morgan Spurlock went on his McDonald's diet for a month for the film Supersize Me, he also restricted his movement to that of the average American, and living in the city that meant often taking cabs where normally he would have done a combination of walking and public transit. However, does this mean city kids are also more active than rural and suburban kids? One study suggests that the opposite is true. As reported in this article:

The report, published in the International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health, used data from a 2006 survey of school-aged children from grades 6 through 10 (ages 11 to 15). It looked at the physical activity patterns of 8,535 students from 180 schools across Canada, and then compared it to the 5-kilometre area surrounding each school. 
The study found that youth in the neighbourhoods of highest density and most connectivity between streets were less likely to be physically active outside school.
The problem is that, especially for younger children, adequate adult supervision in densely packed, narrow streets with numerous moving vehicles is difficult. Indeed, raising my toddler in the city I've found that I am not comfortable even walking a couple blocks to the pharmacy without putting her in a harness to prevent her from suddenly dashing into a busy road. (I get some funny looks doing so, but I'll take that over her getting hit by a car because I wasn't fast enough to grab her in time.) Children in suburbs and more rural areas tend to have large yards and can more safely take over quiet cul-de-sacs for biking, roller skating, and casual games of soccer. 
Beyond exercise, what other benefits could there be to children spending more time in nature? Recently a report in Scotland indicated that the creation of "Urban Jungles" (trees, boulders, and tunnels, opposed to more traditional playground equiptment) resulted in not only increased physical activity of the children, but less accidents and less bullying. 
Over a two week period in 2009 there were 76 accidents, one incident of bullying and 53 other incidents, which include pushing, hitting and slipping. 
A follow-up study in 2011 recorded six accidents and two cases of bullying. Both cases of bullying occurred when the natural play space was closed. 
Others are raising concerns that an increasing disconnect with nature leaves serious gaps in children's education that might diminish their ability to understand many concepts in science and environmental concerns.  One professor in West Australia has spoken out against the problem, particularly for city children

Dr How, who is also an adjunct professor at the school of anatomy and human biology at the University of WA, said the issue was a significant challenge to biodiversity education. 
He said this held serious consequences for children's health but also environmental conservation because the next generation could not protect and appreciate what they did not understand.  

There the State Government is spending two million dollars on a "Nature Play" program to encourage children to experience and learn about the outdoors. 

Recently, Michael D. Barton expressed many of the same concerns in guest article for the Foundation Beyond Belief's blog, titled Humanist Perspectives: Connecting Children to Nature. Barton writes about his concerns that education about evolution, the environment, and developing a personal connection to nature through first hand experience is lacking in public schools, and that as a parent he feels it is his responsibility to supplement his child's education in those areas. He does this not only by having lots of relevant books about, but by taking advantage of local parks and trails as well as nature programming at libraries and museums. He writes: 
To feel that we are a part of nature is crucial in thinking about how we want to treat this planet. 
It begs the question, can we learn all we need to know about the natural sciences from books, or is some amount of direct experience necessary? It is one thing to know something in theory. It is another to have experienced it. This is why we have children conduct hands-on experiments, dissect frogs and turn celery stalks funny colors by immersing them in cups of dyed water. Direct experience provides visuals, tactile sensations, sounds, smells, and tastes that allow us to more personally engage with the information we are taking in. These experiences also leave us with a more vivid memory. 

The more I read, the more I'm drawn to that preschool where the teachers and administrators brag about how the children go outside to freely roam the grounds every day, regardless of rain or snow. I love the city, and I'm proud and enthusiastic about raising my children in a place with so much culture, diversity, and sense of community. But I also want my kids to regard physical activity as something spontaneous and joyful, not only as scheduled, formal activities. I want them to know what it is to catch a fish or swim in a lake. When I teach them about Darwin and his theory of natural selection, I want them to be able to easily imagine the experiences that lead to the ideas, such as obsessively collecting beetles, and comparatively examining finches and tortoise shells on the Galapogos Islands. And I want my kids to experience the unique sense of awe and humility that comes with staring up at a sky full of stars, or standing in a forest of tall trees, or witnessing a gorgeous sunset, or gazing out at the endless blue of an immense body of water. I want them to love this earth with a deep and honest passion, so that acting to preserve our planet in its current state is not only rational, it's personal. 

Thursday, November 17, 2011

On the Film "Forks Over Knives" and Plant-Based Diet Advocacy

With Thanksgiving, a holiday centered around food coming up, it seemed most appropriate to write about Forks Over Knives, one of the latest of many documentaries (not to mention books) about the role of diet in health.

This film advocates for a heavily plant-based diet. At least mostly vegetarian (using meat and other animal products very sparingly as flavoring, and big increases the whole grains, legumes, fruits, and veggies), and ideally strict vegetarian (no meat, dairy, or eggs.) Normally I have avoided films and books that have advocated for vegetarianism, especially strict vegetarian (vegan) diets.

A recent speaker advocating such a diet at one of my local humanist group's program meeting reminded me why. Too often, advocates of vegetarianism, especially veganism, support their message with a bunch of self-righteous moralizing about a level of animal rights that simply doesn't jive with my (or most people's) moral compass. I would happily stab a thousand cows in the face if it would cure a loved-one of cancer. And while I am concerned about the inhumane conditions of much factory farming, there are alternatives of buying and consuming meat from local farmers, and these are becoming more and more accessible. The animal rights approach swiftly dismisses the cultural, psychological, and practical hurtles many must overcome to be vegan, and likens even the occasional meat-eater to puppy torturers. The lecture I recently heard definitely took this approach, and I left the meeting highly annoyed and desiring a cheeseburger just out of spite.

Forks Over Knives does NOT take this approach. Animals rights aren't even mentioned. In fact, the term "vegan" seems to be deliberately avoided in exchange for the phrase "plant-based diet", presumably to distance itself from the association with groups like PETA. Instead, the film focuses on the personal health benefits of a plant-based diet, particular a whole foods, plant-based diet. And it backs its claims up mainly by profiling the research and conclusions of two doctors: T. Colin Campbell and Caldwell Esselstyn. Campbell is a biochemist and one of the lead researchers in the China-Oxford Cornell study that looked at nutrition and disease in 65 rural counties in China over two decades. Campbell wrote about his research and findings in a best selling book The China Study, published in 2006.  Esselstyn is a physician at the Cleveland Clinic who had success treating heart disease patients through diet and wrote about it in Prevent and Reserve Heart Disease, published in 2008. I had previously read both of these doctors' books and had been heavily persuaded by them, while maintaining a few grains of skepticism. After all, the role of nutrition in health is incredibly complex and difficult to study, and both Campbell and Esselstyn make some pretty far-reaching claims about how well a plant-based diet can eliminate many "diseases of affluence" (as Campbell puts it in his book), in particular heart disease, stroke, and cancer.

After reading the books in 2008, I attempted to eat a diet that was mostly in-line with what they advocated. Indeed, I felt good, still enjoyed food, and combined with regular exercise I dropped 25 pounds over 6 months.

But then I got pregnant. (Indeed, the reason I was trying to get all healthy was in anticipation of pregnancy.) It was amazing how much months of persistent nausea and vomiting, as well as hormone-induced cravings for ham salad, cheeseburgers, ice cream, and a total disgust for all things vegetable quickly converted me back to my old way of eating. Actually, much worse than my old way of eating. Things improved a bit after the first trimester, and after having my baby, my love of vegetables returned and I started replacing processed foods, meat, and cheese, with more fresh fruits, veggies, and legumes. But while breastfeeding and eventually introducing a baby to solid foods, I also kept butter, milk, and eggs in the fridge at all times, and made meals with meat at least once or twice a week.

I read Michael Pollan's book In Defense of Food, which can be summed up in his mantra "Eat food (as in not overly-processed Frankenfoods). Not too much. Mostly plants." And I was feeling pretty darn good about my family's diet. Then comes along "Forks Over Knives" to remind me of all that stuff I read and started to believe 3 years ago, and I started questioning whether I should be buying a dozen eggs and some sort of free range meat or fish every week.

After watching the film, I poked around the Internet looking for criticisms. I am automatically skeptical of these sorts of documentaries that heavily push a particular political, social, or philosophical point of view. They have a tendency to gloss over important criticisms and utilize a good number of fallacious arguments. And indeed, I found this lengthy but humorous, even-handed, yet heavy critique of the film's scientific claims. The author, Denise Minger, is a young person without any academic credentials in a related field. However, her research and arguments are rather thorough and startling, and I found them quite persuasive. Once again I'm feeling pretty good about allowing my daughter her meatballs and "eggie pie" (quiche) a couple times a week since, after all, she eats just as much beans and brown rice, oatmeal, a wide variety of steamed vegetables, and whole fruits on a daily basis.

For this Thanksgiving I have pre-ordered a free range, local turkey. As a couple of my guests are vegan, it will be accompanied by a wide assortment of plant-based side dishes including strictly vegetarian green bean casserole, mashed potatoes with mushroom gravy, sweet potato casserole, cranberry salad, and pumpkin pie - all made with fresh ingredients.

But I gotta say, I'm looking forward to that bird.