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Travel Trends: The Late, Great Outdoors

Scott Vogel

For kids, it was a playground opportunity akin to the planets aligning. First of all, it was a Saturday. Second, the sun shone brightly on an unseasonably warm February day. Third, there was this really cool new play structure -- the kind with lots of ingenious moving parts -- that had just been installed on the grounds of the Arlington Arts Center. There was just one thing missing.

Where were all the kids?

The answer, at least according to a recent study by the National Academy of Sciences, is that they were indoors. Maybe they were playing video games, maybe they were reading or watching TV, but one thing's for sure: the charms of a picture-perfect Arlington Saturday went undiscovered. And it's not just kids who have sworn off the outdoors. After all, who's staring at a computer even as we speak? Why, you are. And chances are that you're completely unaware of the wide world outside your window.

So get up and get out of there -- click off this page, log off, go sit in the sun. But before you do, consider some of the sobering findings unearthed by the NAS.

"Nature recreation worldwide -- from camping, hunting and fishing to park visitation -- has declined sharply since the 1980s, and the negative consequences for nature and conservation could soon be profound," reads the study. The authors note that visits to national parks have declined 23% since 1987, hiking approximately 18% between 2000 and 2005, and fishing approximately 25% between 1981 and 2005. Similar recent studies have shown a decline in participation in tennis, swimming and just about every other sport under the, um, sun.

These findings have consequences for American waistlines, of course, but also many branches of the tourism industry, especially those whose livelihoods depend our continued love of the outdoors. The culprit, as you might expect, is something the study calls "videophilia," the popularity of computers/television/video games that continues to grow among both adults and children, and which began in, you guessed it, the 1980s.

But can this admittedly dramatic decline in outdoor activities really be traced to our obsession with techno-gadgetry? And if so, what do we and our kids stand to lose?

By Scott Vogel |  February 26, 2008; 10:04 AM ET  | Category:  Scott Vogel , Travel Trends
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This topic has a prominent place with our family and is one of the reasons for my daughter to choose a career in outdoor recreation and leadership. The idea of a "nature deficit" has been around for a long time and author Richard Louv covers it well in his book "Last Child in the Woods: Saving Our Children from Nature Deficit Disorder." Louv argues that kids are so plugged into television and video games that they've lost their connection to the natural world.

A simple view would say that many of the losses are physical (e.g., increased obesity), but moreover it is the loss of a sense of stewardship that we need to have for the outdoors.

Posted by: TreeHugger | February 26, 2008 12:41 PM

If fewer people are hunting and fishing, there's more game for me to hunt and fish to catch. If fewer people are visiting the national parks, they will be less crowded and less beaten up. If fewer people are playing tennis or golf, playing time will be easier to come by. I understand you philosophic point of view that all this is a problem and reflects badly on society as a whole, but for people who enjoy hunting, fishing, visiting national parks, tennis and golf, the news couldn't be better.

Posted by: Tom | February 26, 2008 3:50 PM

As I see it, it isn't just a tech obsessed youth that is to blame. It is also in part fearful parents. Parent's that don't mind that there kids are inside because they know they are "safe". Many parents also don't assign chores for kids to do around the house, increasing laziness. By the time I was in first grade I knew how to dust, polish furniture, and set the table. By the time I was in 3rd grade I knew how to wash the dishes and do the laundry. By the time I was in 7th grade I was mowing the yard (Although I preferred to do it when I wanted to, not necessarily when I was told to do it, typical teenage boy)

I am 44. When I was a kid, I grew up in Bowie. Across the street was a break in the houses due to there being a steep drop off, at least 3 lots worth. That is what we called the "woods." During the summer, fall and spring, as long as the weather was good you could probably find me in the woods. Being the youngest of 8 kids, sometimes I was with my youngest sister. But, by the time I was in 2nd grade, I was often by myself. Sure sometimes I was playing with the neighbor kids either in the woods or in our yard or someone else's . But many times I was just exploring on my own. Did I get hurt? Yes. Did I sometimes get scared? Yes, I remember seeing a snake one time, and running all the way home. The only restriction I had was not to go too far into the woods, that I couldn't hear someone yelling my name to come in for dinner. But during the summer from 10 to 3? I could be a mile or more away. We moved from there after I was done with 6th grade, I have missed the "Woods" ever since.

Of course if you live in a city, it is quite different, then if you live in suburbia. But that just means you have to adapt your play, and be more vigilant with traffic, etc. You learn to use public transportation, to get where you want to go if it is too far to walk ( or takes too much time to walk there) When I was a teen, if I wanted to go hang out at the mall, I walked there (45 minutes). If I wanted to go downtown to the library, I walked 15 minutes to the bus stop.

Does that mean I didn't watch TV that much, no. I did watch quite a bit. When I was an older kid I also read voraciously. I was never into sports, but I did get outside to play and explore.

Posted by: rja112 | February 27, 2008 1:54 AM

Wow, great forum. I think you all make interesting points, and I find it particularly helpful to be reminded that the rise in video game culture is just one factor in this growing bias against the outdoors. I too had my version of the "woods" growing up, and while the outdoor element was surely a great part of what I miss, I'm almost as nostalgic for a world in which children could have the alone-in-the-wider-world time that "rja112" speaks so eloquently of. For lack of a better word, I felt safe in the world outside my home, an attitude that my 1960s-era parents felt comfortable reinforcing. In addition, that world also excited me and fired my imagination, something my parents also supported. In fact, the world outside was a place that, while not completely danger-free, promised far more adventure than I could ever get at home. Not surprisingly, the desire for adventure trumped the sense of danger every time. I wonder how much of our children's antipathy toward the great outdoors is due to today's constant reminders that it's a cold, dirty and frequently dangerous place. Given the attitudes reinforced by today's parents and today's media, can we really be surprised that they prefer staying home?

Posted by: Scott Vogel | February 27, 2008 9:03 AM

"for people who enjoy hunting, fishing, visiting national parks, tennis and golf, the news couldn't be better.

Posted by: Tom | February 26, 2008 03:50 PM "


I see your point to a certain degree, but in the case of our national and state parks, declining use leads to a decline in funding. In turn, public facilities are crumbling due to neglect. Hunting and fishing on private property may be more enjoyable for you, but public parks are losing services due to lack of public interest. If the trend continues, there will be no such facilities to enjoy in the future. I know of three state parks in my area that have closed in the last 10 years due to lack of public use. All of these had excellent facilities for camping, fishing, hiking, and various sports, but when funding was cut, these were closed first because they were never used.

Personally I think it's quite depressing to visit a local park or playground and be the only family there.

Posted by: Karen | February 27, 2008 6:33 PM

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