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Reclaiming the Wonder Years

Reclaiming the Wonder Years

By Shelley Hoss

The ConnectOC Blog is a place for sharing insight, information and examples of how Orange County residents, donors and nonprofits are working to build a brighter, stronger, more vibrant community.  We welcome you to share your thoughts by commenting below.

Remember the joy of digging your tiny fingers into soft dirt and imagining you were a jungle explorer?

Or the freedom of climbing a tree in your yard to survey your little corner of the world from a lofty perch? 

Whether or not we realized it, these outdoor activities—the staple of many of our childhoods—were powerfully fueling our sense of wonderment with the world, inspiring our creativity and developing our critical-thinking skills. 

Today, however, too many kids only experience nature by looking out a window. Their fingers aren’t reaching for worms squirming on the sidewalk after a rainstorm or cradling “roly poly” bugs as they curl into tiny balls. Their fingers are clicking video game controllers, while they become immersed in a fantasy world where car chases trump stomping through water puddles.

It’s a problem widely discussed by families, educational professionals and psychologists across the nation. But here in Orange County, the Environmental Nature Center (ENC) is doing something about it through the development of a hands-on ENC Nature Preschool. Their vision is to reclaim the territory of childhood past, when we engaged with nature effortlessly, and unstructured activity—good, ol’ fashioned ”running around outside”—created an ideal environment to engage and stimulate our developing minds.

Bo Glover, executive director of the ENC, points to astonishing facts spurring the need for this type of educational experience. Today’s children sit an average of seven and a half hours in front of computers and TVs every day. They spend half as much time outdoors as children did 20 years ago — less time than any other generation. That adds up to only four to seven minutes of outdoor play per day. And we wonder why we have issues with kids’ health and fitness, and their ability to concentrate during classroom time?

“Kids today are overscheduled and moved relentlessly from one activity to the next,” Glover explained. “They are continually on their electronic media devices. They do not have one-to-one experience with the natural world, and this is eliminating their understanding of everything from where food comes from to the basic workings of the biological world.”

A growing body of research suggests that contact with nature is as important to children as good nutrition and adequate sleep. It influences a child’s emotional, social, physical development and academic achievement — as well as building up their independence and autonomy. 

“Without free play, kids’ experiences are really limited,” Glover said. “The development of their imagination and sense of wonder links directly to early experiences with the natural world, and wonder is an important motivator for life-long learning.”

In addition, free play fosters language and collaborative skills, increases fitness levels and builds active, healthy bodies. 

“We need to take a step back from our busy schedules and allow kids to be kids again,” Glover said. “Kids can gain an appreciation for nature even in the smallest pockets if they have the opportunity for free play.”

Learn more about ENC’s Nature Preschool and other local nonprofits dedicated to the education and health of Orange County’s children at Nonprofit Central.


Shelley Hoss is president of the Orange County Community Foundation. She can be reached at [email protected]

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