Children’s Hospital Physician: “In My Own Words”
I am so thankful to be back in my home of East Tennessee. We are very blessed here to have the resources of the Great Smoky Mountains National Park. Earlier this week, I ran part of Cades Cove, a loop through a beautiful valley near the Townsend entrance to the Park. Even though I have biked, driven, walked and run Cades Cove many times in my life, I was still amazed this week to see eight-point bucks, horses in the fields, and doe five feet from the road. This love of the Park and outdoors grew in me as a child because of the time I spent with my family outdoors, mainly in the Smoky Mountains. We have so much beauty and so many activities that we can enjoy in this area. As both a nature lover and a doctor, I encourage everyone, but especially families, to enjoy all the hiking, biking, fishing, camping, walking, picnicking, and swimming that the Smokies have to offer.
While camping last summer in the Boundary Waters, a wilderness area of connected rivers and lakes in Northern Minnesota, I read a book by Richard Louv called Last Child in the Woods about what the author calls nature-deficit disorder (this while fending off mosquitoes, swimming in pristine waters and canoeing among wooded islands). As a physician, I knew that this is not a psychiatric disorder listed in any textbook, but Louv’s research showing that fewer people, and hence, fewer children, are spending time outdoors is indeed accurate.
U.S. Department of the Interior National Park Service Data corroborates this. Data from 1998 to the present shows that the national park system is down 10 million visitors; 2012 data shows that while some parks experienced an increase in visitors in the past year, people are staying 2-50 percent less time than in the past (depending on the particular national park). Louv’s hypothesis is that, for reasons too numerous for a brief article to name, many children are growing up without exposure to the beauty of our country, our national parks, and even just the backyard. As a result, his research shows that children have increased obesity, shorter attention spans, and possibly less use and development of their imaginations.
Some of his hypotheses are undeniable. A 2007-2008 study published by the National Survey of Children’s Health showed that Tennessee ranks 6th in the nation for childhood obesity. At least 36 percent of schoolchildren in this state are obese. The long-term complications of obesity are serious and include hypertension, joint pain and disease, heart disease, kidney disease, liver disease and type II diabetes mellitus. Depending on a child’s weight, Harvard research indicates that playing outdoor games such as hopscotch, running, or digging in the dirt can burn up to 150 calories per hour. In comparison, for a child of similar weight, watching television burns 23 calories per hour. Thus, outdoor activities are a good source of exercise for children, helping to ward off obesity.
While we need more research in regards to Louv’s hypotheses that lack of exposure to outdoor time can shorten attention spans or limit the bounds of imagination, his hypotheses clicked with me based on what I see in the East Tennessee Children’s Hospital ER every day. Many children have iPads, iPods and smart phones that act as distractions; this can be very helpful in the ER with procedures to calm a scared child. Our Child Life personnel, experts in child development who help the medical personnel in the ER and other departments at Children’s Hospital, use technology for this purpose. Smart electronics can also be learning aids. But while I see many children who willingly sit still and concentrate on an electronic screen, many exhibit very different behavior without the same device. Some can’t sit still, can’t have a conversation or make eye contact, and won’t listen to their parents’ commands because they are so distracted by technology. The latest technology is no substitute for making up stories or jokes with children while waiting, talking about the day, or reading a book and discussing it. Even the time waiting in an ER or doctor’s office can be valuable parenting time, helping to develop children’s conversation and thinking skills and teaching children how to interact appropriately with other people.
We have the perfect place to enjoy time outdoors. So as we head into a beautiful Tennessee spring, I encourage everyone to turn off the iPad and tune into the beauty of a sunset, a bird calling or the clouds. Your children will thank you for it, and your whole family will be healthier because of it.
By Katy Stordahl, M.D.