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Cure-all for kids

Birding can improve a child’s health — and it might just change the course of the planet
By Danielle Harris | Published: 6/1/2015

Cure-all-for-kidsBefore 1906, snake oil sold by charlatans offered cures for everything from joint pain to alcoholism. Hoping for cures to cholera, measles, or typhoid, naive townspeople eagerly bought magic elixirs advertised by so-called doctors who claimed to know Native American or ancient Chinese secrets.

Modern parents know better. If they read a label for a children’s medicine that promises to cure heart disease, diabetes, obesity, depression, and ADHD, they would be dubious. If the label also claims the liquid could improve bone health and nearsightedness and help a child find a job, become successful in life, perhaps even attain worldwide fame, they would definitely dismiss it. Birding, however, offers just such an elixir.

Readers of this magazine are familiar with the enjoyments of birding. According to a demographic analysis conducted by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, however, America’s No. 1 pastime isn’t brimming with youthful zest. The tendency of birders to be middle-aged or older is reflected in both the number of birders and participation rates.

Sharing birding with youth can be difficult. With the very young, we must contend with short attention spans and the insistent, often violent, demands of attention. And don’t forget the paraphernalia: By the time we’ve loaded up the playpen, the stroller, the backpack, the snacks, and the changes of clothes, we realize there isn’t room for the car seat or the kid. Instead, we opt for a Disney movie and popcorn, or the kiddie pool and a backyard suntan.

In the middle-school ages, attention spans are still short, demands on our attention are still insistent, and the snacks — one needs copious amounts of snacks. And with teenagers, well, their reputations precede them. But when we become convinced that an activity is key to a child’s health, we make Herculean efforts to make sure it happens. Here are five compelling reasons to share birding with children.

1. Birding improves a child’s physical health.

Sure, we all know birding outdoors is healthy, but did you know it prevents serious health concerns such as heart disease and diabetes? These are major killers of adults in Western society, and they are increasing at an alarming rate in children. The risk factors begin early and are closely related to childhood obesity, which has doubled in the last 20 years. When you take your child birding outdoors, you are counteracting these disturbing threats.

Time outside correlates with increased physical activity. A study published in the American Journal of Preventative Medicine found that children who spend more time outdoors are more active than children who spend less time outdoors. Although the problem of obesity is dire across the board, the repercussions increase for girls. A Rutgers-Camden study reveals that obesity in girls predicts the onset of depression by early adulthood. Birding outside does battle on both fronts, decreasing obesity, reducing stress, and improving mood.

It’s good to know that, while taking your child birding, you are fighting heart disease, diabetes, obesity, and depression, but birding forays do more than fight negative possibilities. Hiking to find a new species can also improve bone health. A new study suggests that bones reap a lifetime of benefits if exercised when young. Many American children don’t get enough vitamin D, a substance responsible for the absorption of calcium and other nutrients. Birding outside, in the sunlight, helps young bodies absorb calcium. And focusing on whether a bird has an eye-ring or a wing bar will improve distance vision, lowering the chance of nearsightedness.

If you think sending your child out to play will reap the same benefits as taking them with you on a birding expedition, think again. A study published in the journal Pediatrics suggests that young children are not “naturally active,” and that parents have an important role to play in the development of healthy activity. Another study in the American Journal of Preventative Medicine found that children whose parents participate in physical activity with them are more active than children whose parents do not participate with them. Birding provides the format for getting both parents and children out of doors.

2. Birding improves a child’s mental health.

The United States has become the largest consumer of ADHD medications in the world. Birding offers a different answer. Exposure to natural settings is effective in reducing ADHD symptoms. Scientists associate nature study with improved behavior and focus and a decreased need for medications in patients with ADHD.

America’s youth also struggle with happiness and well-being, as can be observed by a sharp rise in children’s use of antidepressants. Try birding outside for regular intervals; studies have shown kids’ stress levels fall within minutes of seeing green spaces.

Did you know that birding can also make your child smarter? Nature study has been found to improve test scores and classroom focus. It also bolsters school readiness.

Children who turn to field guides to investigate migration patterns quickly become familiar with geography by reading maps with ledgers and keys. They’re also learning how to use an informational source (a big focus in today’s educational requirements), becoming familiar with the index and how different field guides are organized. By examining how birds interact with their environments, kids grasp the food chain, habitat, and other ecological concepts.

And who doesn’t want to prepare children for today’s job market? Birding develops powers of observation and memory. Identifying species builds keen analytical skills, while comparing species fosters deduction. Studies have shown that critical-thinking skills such as these improve after exposure to natural settings. Moreover, children who create their own field guides find that birding encourages artistic expression. Kids who try to identify birds by their songs improve their listening abilities. And children who go birding learn to be quiet in certain situations and patient when waiting for a bird to reappear, social attributes that any parent would welcome gladly.

3. Birding helps a child form an identity.

Children form strong identities when they pursue a hobby such as birding, which improves their self-esteem. Mainstream belief often portrays adolescents as the sole agents in figuring out who they are. An article in the Journal of Research on Adolescence, however, reveals that parents of children with strong identities are concerned and involved participants in their children’s identity formation. Parents who reflected on how to form their child’s identity and carefully chose environments that best served a vision of what they hoped he or she would become were more successful in helping their child form a strong identity. So dive in and help children become birders.

Having a driving interest in birding translates to other areas of life, opening doors to ecology and other sciences, political involvement, art, and writing. Parents can foster artistic talent by encouraging kids to sketch birds and their habitats. They can also encourage literary appreciation and craft by reading the writings of great naturalists, copying memorable quotations, and encouraging young talents to imitate literary styles until they develop a voice of their own.

Kids with a penchant for languages can learn species’ scientific names and keep lists of jargon that helps describe birds and their behavior. Budding scientists can categorize and classify birds according to characteristics they observe in the field. Birding has the additional, and wonderful, benefits of being a low-pressure extracurricular activity with flexible attendance requirements, attributes you won’t find in competitive team sports. Moreover, birding offers plenty of opportunities for volunteering and community service, activities that will look good on applications and resumes later on.

Many positive elements of forming a youthful interest in birds carry through into adulthood. The ability to pursue a task and work at it, a sense of direction and motivation, high self-esteem — all are beneficial in the adult work world. They will help young people recognize their potential regardless of the field they choose to enter.

4. Birding helps children form a community.

Birding as a family can be a source of traditions and memories. Birding provides a wealth of outdoor destinations for day trips, weekend expeditions, and longer vacations — all of which become bonding experiences for family members and friends. Scientific studies show that nature enhances personal happiness and strengthens connections with others, enhancing social interactions, value for community, and close relationships. Children appreciate diversity as they learn about different species, many of them coexisting in the same habitats. Observing how each bird finds its niche teaches kids how different people contribute to families and societies.

Birders form communities naturally and quickly. With many clubs, blogs, tours, and guides to choose from, they never need to bird alone. Opportunities to participate within a team and play a variety of roles are plenty. Moreover, it won’t be long before avid young birders can share the excitement of their hobby with someone new to it, thus helping to foster leadership qualities.

5. Birding with kids could change the world.

This is perhaps the most powerful reason to share birding with children: Birding has the potential to ignite a passion that could become a life path. Great artists, naturalists, and ornithologists who inspire us today were once children whose bond with nature formed early. The Swedish artist Lars Jonsson, for example, spent his childhood outdoors observing and sketching birds. He exhibited paintings at the Natural History Museum in Stockholm when he was only 15 years old, and he rose to prominence soon thereafter.

Aldo Leopold, Rachel Carson, Gary Snyder, John Muir, and David Attenborough are all people who changed the world. Their passion for nature was formed in childhood. Artist, scientist, naturalist, environmentalist — these career paths are often found after interest is sparked early in life, when all the world is exciting and new.

There is no need to place large expectations, however. Every child can become a contributor to a better world. Children who care about birding will learn to protect birds and their habitats. Birding elicits a greater awareness of the natural world. Even a young birder can make an impact via local and regional programs offered through conservation groups. Our planet’s health depends on the millions who are conscious of the delicate interrelations of organisms and who care what happens to any one of them. Elizabeth Rosenthal, a biographer of Roger Tory Peterson, summed it up ideally when she wrote, “Hope for the future rests, to an extent, with those who use field guides.”

Birding with children certainly has its challenges, but the investment brings high returns for a child’s physical and mental health. Birding with kids adds social benefits, such as helping children form an identity and a community. By sharing your birding enthusiasm with the young, you are doing your part to make the world a better and safer place for the future.

So, if you are concerned about a child’s struggles with ADHD, if you are wondering how to help a child find his or her place in the world, or if you are simply concerned about our planet, grab an extra pair of binoculars and extend an invitation to a child. Today’s magic elixir isn’t found in a glass bottle. Nor is it sold at the traveling circus. It’s as close as your nearest nature hike or favorite walk. The only other requirement is your enthusiasm for birds.

Danielle Harris is an educator and writer whose articles have appeared in Cascades East, 1859, Portland Goodness, and Portland Family. She lives with her husband and four daughters, all birders, in Powell Butte, Oregon.

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