Garden teacher Tanya Stiller at Rosa Parks Elementary School shares her love of the natural world with students. Photo: Sharon Danks

Sharon Danks and her colleagues around the world are doing their best to combat so-called nature deficit disorder in today’s children, many of whom are growing up with competing demands such as “screen time,” and other barriers to a romp in the park such as safety concerns or access issues.

Danks, a planner and partner with Bay Tree Design in Berkeley, recently co-founded the global group International School Grounds Alliance to address an increasingly sedentary and risk-averse generation of young ones who, it is feared, are becoming disconnected from their natural environments. Some children, shuttled from school to home to other indoor activities, simply don’t spend much, if any, time in the great outdoors.

The nascent organization, with members in Australia, Canada, Germany, Japan, Sweden, the United Kingdom and the United States, want kids to experience the fun and games of outside play.

The nonprofit brings together experts in the fields of school ground use, design, education, and management, and believes that school grounds are an important component of childrens’ hands-on learning, as well as nurturing their physical, social, and emotional development and well-being. As anyone who’s ever sat through a child’s three-hour baseball game can attest, free play and nature play may encourage more movement than organized sports games.

And, as testimony revealed at recent Berkeley Unified School District board meetings addressing potential gardening program cuts, there’s a lot of learning that takes place when kids play outside.

Rosa Parks kids engage in "free play" outdoors. Photo: Sharon Danks

If only they had the chance.

“Children’s freedom to explore their neighborhoods and experience the natural world on their own has been diminishing over the last generation as childhood gets overtaken by busy schedules and constrained by adults’ fears of crime and risk, ” said Danks, who spoke at one of the BUSD board meetings in support of funding for school garden programs.

“At the same time, children have become more sedentary, spend more time indoors, and obesity is on the rise,” added the author of “Asphalt to Ecosystems.”

“Often the only place urban and suburban children have free time to spend outdoors is at school — making school grounds an important place to foster a love of nature and an understanding of ecology, and encourage creative play and learning.”

The idea behind the international collaboration, Danks explained, is to share research, ideas, and methods to help children’s school environments grow and thrive. Each culture brings different strengths to the mix. California is strong — and Berkeley in particular — on edible gardening and nutrition education. Last year, school grounds advocates from around the world toured Martin Luther King Middle School’s Edible Schoolyard, Rosa Parks Elementary School‘s green schoolyard, and the City of Berkeley’s Adventure Playground.

But the U.S. has a lot to learn, Danks noted, from the school grounds movements in Germany and Scandinavia that promote “free play” and allow children to have much more challenging playgrounds at schools and in other public spaces than here. “Research in Germany — done by their own insurance companies — show that children grow up to become adults who have fewer accidents if they are allowed to take on challenging play when young,” she said. “And, in doing so, they gain a good sense of balance, an ability to judge risk successfully, and lead active lifestyles.”

What could Berkeley use more of in Danks’ mind? “I’d like to see the type of play that happens at the Adventure Playground happen in more of our parks and schools — that is, free play with a creative edge that allows children to imaginatively shape their own play environments using their hands and tools,” she said. “I’d also like to see more “loose play parts” on our playgrounds, to allow kids to build their own forts with branches or create ephemeral sculptures with natural materials.”

One suspects most kids — and many adults — would give Danks’ suggestions the thumbs up.

Watch the group’s new video:

Sarah Henry is the voice behind Lettuce Eat Kale. You can follow her on Twitter and Facebook.

Berkeley district votes to fund at-risk edible programs
Community seeks life support for school edible programs [03.30.12]
Berkeley school gardening, cooking face cuts [03.23.12]
Berkeley’s asphalt-to-green movement rooted in schools [05.20.11]
U.S. Surgeon General visits UC, Edible Schoolyard [03.17.11]
A planner who favors edible, eco education — and risk [03.25.11]