January 24, 2013
by Mrs. Laura Bush
Some of my earliest memories are of the Texas outdoors.
In Midland, my first playgrounds were vacant lots covered with mesquite trees. In the summers, I would travel west, to visit my grandparents on the outskirts of El Paso, gazing out upon the Rio Grande River and the Franklin Mountains, surrounded by the searing desert light and heat, or take family trips to swim at Balmorhea or to the Gulf of Mexico at Galveston.
But increasingly today, the Texas outdoors is being lost to our children.
Nature and the natural world are like a foreign language to many of today’s kids, in Texas and around the nation. An elementary school child now spends less time outdoors than any generation in human history — 50 percent less time than kids did just 20 years ago. Time outside has been replaced by time indoors, and roughly six hours of each day is devoted to various forms of electronic media, such as televisions, computers or video game consoles. In fact, kids today are six times more likely to play a video game than to ride a bike.
Along with this vastly diminished time outdoors, researchers have noticed other serious changes in the lives and minds of our children. In some areas, academic achievement is stagnating or falling, while increasing numbers of children are less able to engage in vigorous or cooperative play, and learning challenges such as Attention Deficit Disorder are rising.
Yet we know that time spent in nature decreases stress and anxiety and improves focus for adults as well as children.
In his book, “Last Child in the Woods,” Richard Louv tells the story of a boy who was described as “hyperactive” and had been kicked out of school. His parents had noticed that when this boy was outside, nature engaged and soothed him. They made a special effort to take their son outdoors to beaches, forests, and rivers. This story is from 1907, and that boy who loved nature grew up to be one of the greatest nature photographers of all time, Ansel Adams. How can we nurture the next Ansel Adams, or any child whose potential is waiting to be tapped by the wonders of the outdoors?
Unstructured, natural play helps stimulate creativity and improves problem solving. The more time spent outside, the better the achievement levels inside our state’s schools and classrooms. But this issue goes beyond achievement. We all, parents, educators, community leaders, and every Texas citizen, need to come together to find new ways to engage children with the natural environment. Our state’s future depends upon it. If we do not instill a love of the natural world and its care in our children, who will care for Texas in the years to come?
That is one of the reasons I helped start Taking Care of Texas, a 2-year-old nonprofit focused on can-do conservation and collaborative conservation efforts.
Today, at a summit on children and nature, Taking Care of Texas will help launch the statewide Natural Resource and Environmental Literacy Plan. Developed by more than 30 organizations, including Taking Care of Texas, this plan is designed to share the natural beauties of our state with every Texas child.
Through this effort and others, we can give our children and grandchildren the chance to play in the outdoors as many of us once did.
But we can do more. Ninety-four percent of all land in Texas is privately owned. So, for us as Texans, conservation for future generations truly begins at home. If we make it a priority to conserve our own property and then to introduce the natural wonders of our state to our children, love for our land becomes a way of life. And by our example, we teach our children how to be careful stewards of Texas.
In their own gardens, my mother and my grandmother taught me the importance of the native plants of Texas. It’s a tradition I’ve worked to continue. George and I are restoring the native prairie on our ranch near Crawford. We began by planting native Texas seed at the edge of an old cattle watering hole. Today Prairie Chapel Ranch has 100 acres of native prairie grassland.
At a 15-acre public park site at the soon to open George W. Bush Center on the grounds of Southern Methodist University, we have planted native Texas trees and wildflowers and a new blend of native grass, developed by the Lady Bird Johnson Wildflower Center, a Taking Care of Texas partner.
In the middle of Dallas, the Bush Center’s revitalized grounds will attract butterflies, and a red-tailed hawk has already made its home in the parkland.
As a soon-to-be grandmother, I want my grandchildren to enjoy the natural beauty of Texas. And that is my hope for every Texas child: that he or she comes to know the joys of the natural world and the simple pleasures of playing outside.
On behalf of future generations, I ask you to help continue this tradition and to take care of the best of Texas: our people and our land.
Laura W. Bush is former first lady of the United States and Texas.