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Taking It Outside

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So it's come to this: Children are so alienated from nature that the best tool for luring them outdoors might be an exhibit set up inside the walls of a museum.

That's one premise behind Exploring Trees Inside and Out, a traveling interactive display now at the Pittsburgh Children's Museum aimed at kids ages 2-10.

At the Feb. 6 opening, uniformed urchins from nearby Cardinal Wright Regional School scampered beneath synthetic trees whose carriage-bolted branches bore zippered sleeves, the fabric painted with leaves; a faux cloud hung above. Sitting on stools shaped like acorns, kids joined Steeler Gary Russell at a console where telephone handsets relayed "The Sounds of Nature." They squirmed through the playhouse, descending a green plastic slide into a padded ring filled with autumn leaves made from fabric. And, dressed in handily supplied owl and butterfly costumes, they tried "Dancing With Trees," an interactive video station that digitally inserted them into scenes of wind-blown forest, and sent them soaring over the treetops like birds.

In the back of the room, behind the informational banners about maple trees and microscopes for peeping slides of pollen, fabric screens shielded the Plexiglas-paned garage door that admitted the only natural light. The lone living part of the display was an owl from the National Aviary.

Exploring Trees, produced by the Arbor Day Foundation, Dimensions Educational Research Foundation and corporate sponsor Doubletree hotels, responds to alarms raised by people like Richard Louv. In his 2005 book Last Child in the Woods, Louv argued that kids are suffering from what he calls Nature Deficit Disorder, which he says is culpable for everything from attention-deficit problems to childhood obesity. And he speculated that environmental stewardship is imperiled in a society where kids -- overprotected and overbooked in an overpaved world -- don't climb trees or play in the mud.

Children are "the future caretakers. They're the future tree-planters," said Arbor Day's Kevin Sander at the Children's Museum event. "We have to connect with them at this early age." The exhibit, says Sander, is "another way of being green."

Sander said anecdotal evidence suggests that patrons, inspired by the show, have gone on to explore real trees outdoors. But the ironies seem obvious. Why not just take the darn kids to a park, like the one a block from the Children's Museum? And might Exploring Trees, with its instantly responsive electronic devices, mislead children about what real woods are like?

Educators familiar with such exhibits say that, at best, they're a starting point.

"We have to be careful, because virtual experiences ... that's what kids are living with all the time," says Ruth Roperti, a retired local grade-school teacher who's president of the Pennsylvania Association for Environmental Educators.

"A lot of it, when you get outside, is noticing things that aren't yourself," says Kathryn Hunninen, who coordinates the Frick Environmental Center's family program and kids' summer camps. Even kids nervous about walking wooded trails, she says, need just a few hours to acclimate to a playground populated by underbrush and beetles: "They're drawn to it."

"More probably the outdoor experience is going to have the lasting impression," says Patricia Zaradic, a Philadelphia-based conservation ecologist who researches our changing relationship with nature.

Susie Wirth, outreach director of the Nebraska-based Arbor Day Foundation's Nature Explore program, agrees it's "shocking" how little time kids play outdoors. Wirth helped design Exploring Trees, and touts the exhibit's "visual-spatial" teaching techniques, which studies suggest help kids learn better than sequential, text-based methods. Wirth adds that the show is meant to be inspiring rather than realistic. "Every aspect is designed to get kids outside," she says.

Indeed, even educators skeptical about housebound nature education say it could help -- and that it might even be necessary. Many parents, after all, aren't nature aficionados, either. Evolutionary children of the African savannah, we're now bred to the computer room. As Roperti puts it, "The fact that [families are] already at the museum ... it's good to take advantage of that."

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