LANSING - By the age of 5, the average child will have watched as many hours of television as the classroom time it takes to earn a college degree.
"In essence, a 5-year-old has the equivalent of a college degree in television watching," said Tom Occhipinti, the environmental education coordinator for the Department of Environmental Quality. "The youngest generation today is not getting outdoors at all. They've got too much indoors to keep them busy."
Occhipinti's program produces environment-related teaching materials for schools across the state.
Television, computers and video games keep young people inside at an unhealthy rate, Occhipinti said. Studies have linked the lack of outdoor activities to health problems such as obesity.
To address what is sometimes referred to as "nature deficit disorder," there are teaching supplements that integrate more outdoor education - or "place-based education" - into schools.
Getting more children to spend more time outside is a state, regional and national effort, he said.
Place-based education is about re-establishing connections with the outdoors, said Mark Stephens, an East Lansing hub coordinator for the Great Lakes Stewardship Initiative.
The initiative, established in 2007, has eight regional "hubs" around Michigan. It partners with schools and community residents to expand environmental education and stewardship through hands-on projects.
Students have done everything from build wood duck boxes for zoos to participate in stream velocity management projects to clean up riverbanks and storm drains. Such cross-curricular projects are intertwined with core education subjects like math and social studies.
The hubs get children outside working on projects that they learn from and that also benefits the community. In addition to East Lansing, they are in Flint, Traverse City, Grand Rapids, Hancock, Alpena, Ypsilanti and Muskegon.
Funding comes from the Great Lakes Fishery Trust, an organization that provides financial support to nonprofits and educators to preserve Great Lakes fishery resources.
Stephens coordinates the GRAND Learning Network hub. The name stands for Grand River and Nature Discovery, and it focuses on the Grand River watershed region.
The program starts in kindergarten, and the early start leads to civic-minded students and increased time outdoors, Stephens said.
Mary Whitmore, the Great Lakes Stewardship Initiative developer and coordinator, said outdoor activities and community engagement also indirectly address nature deficit disorder.
In addition, Stephens cited health benefits to place-based education.
For example, outdoor education tends to be dynamic, giving participants an opportunity to move around more and addresses the issue of obesity, Stephens said. And hyperactive students tend to be calmer when they're learning outside.
The results of the program have influenced some teachers who now start every school day with a short trip outside, he said.
At the national level, the No Child Left Inside Coalition, comprised of more than 2,000 business, health, youth, environmental and educational groups from all over the country, are pushing for federal legislation to allocate more funding for environmental and place-based education.
The coalition has members throughout the Great Lakes Region. The efforts in Michigan are unique, Stephens said.
"There are no other states that do what we do," he said. "We're trying to change the culture of schools and it's really catching on and gaining steam."