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Sunflower Society helps families counter ‘nature-deficit disorder’

Sat., Sept. 11, 2010

Husband and wife Khalid and Susan Shirzad and their children Sophia, 2, above, and Drew, 4, below, experience their first huckleberry- picking outing as part of the  Sunflower Society.  (Jesse Tinsley)
Husband and wife Khalid and Susan Shirzad and their children Sophia, 2, above, and Drew, 4, below, experience their first huckleberry- picking outing as part of the Sunflower Society. (Jesse Tinsley)

Kids need to play outside.

Exploring the natural environment not only helps children become stronger and healthier, studies show, nature also stretches their minds, nurtures creativity and promotes a sense of connection to the planet and their community.

But in this age of “videophilia” – a term that describes the trend toward sedentary, indoor activities involving electronic media – a growing number of children are choosing to hang out in front of a screen instead of playing outdoors.

Families also are busier than ever. They get caught up in routines, forget to play and gradually lose that connection to nature.

To help families combat “nature-deficit disorder” – an ailment that author Richard Louv described in his 2005 best-seller, “Last Child in the Woods” – two Spokane Valley dads have created a group to help parents, grandparents, guardians, educators and others to expose children to the outdoors.

They call themselves the Sunflower Society.

“It’s for people who want to get their kids and families out in the environment but don’t necessarily know how,” explained Todd Dunfield, an avid outdoorsman and a father of three boys all under age 5.

The Sunflower Society won’t be scaling mountain peaks any time soon, he said. Instead, they’ve planned kid-friendly hikes, short canoe trips and other excursions that involve berry picking or watching turtles at a nearby pond.

Dunfield, who works as the assistant director of Gonzaga University’s Center for Community Action and Service-Learning, saw a need in the community for an organization like the Sunflower Society.

Many moms and dads want to spend more time with their families outside, he said, but it’s sometimes daunting and can be a huge learning curve, especially for those new to parenting.

Questions abound: What do I pack? What can I do when they get tired and whiny? How do I change a diaper when we’re out on a trail?

Getting kids ready for a hike or a camping trip can be quite the challenge that some parents choose not to go at all.

That’s why it helps to have other families along for support and advice, Dunfield said. Being part of a group like the Sunflower Society also gives people the encouragement and motivation to get out in the first place.

Dunfield came up with the idea for the Sunflower Society along with Chris Bachman, chairman of the Sierra Club Upper Columbia River Group’s Inner City Outings. That community outreach program provides opportunities for low-income youth to experience the outdoors.

Both men grew up with a deep love and reverence for the outdoors and have made it a goal to share this passion with their children. As community activists who have advocated for conservation and environmental stewardship, they also wanted to share their experiences in nature with other families.

“Quite simply, nature is good for you,” Bachman wrote last month in the inaugural Sunflower Society newsletter.

He noted the many benefits of being in the outdoors, from physical fitness and self-confidence to strengthening family ties and building relationships with others.

Bachman, 44, spent his childhood in Germany, where his father served in the U.S. Air Force. His family traveled and camped all over Europe, he recalled. He grew up riding his bicycle everywhere and always felt safe and part of the community.

“I knew what nature meant to me, but I can also see it in my children’s faces,” he said, describing the sense of wonder and joy that his daughter, 8-year-old Alex, and son, 6-year-old Seth, often experience whenever they go bird-watching, hiking and participate in other outdoor activities.

Dunfield, 32, also grew up in a military family that lived in Germany. Like Bachman, he spent his summers in a Volkswagen camper van exploring the countryside.

When his family moved back to the United States, he became a Boy Scout and immersed himself in wilderness adventures. Since then, he’s become an advocate for “trees and trails.”

The two men first met in 2005 at a service learning gathering at Gonzaga University. After talking to other parents who expressed the desire to spend more time with their families outdoors, Bachman and Dunfield decided they needed to create a group that would boost people’s confidence so that they can empower their own children as they learn more about the natural world.

“We learn from nature,” said Bachman. “We also learn from our children as they experience nature.”

As adults, he said, “we lose the ability to live in the moment.” But children are curious, he added, and notice details that grown-ups sometimes no longer see or take for granted.

During a recent hike, for instance, his daughter stopped suddenly to observe something off the trail. “Why are we stopping again?” he thought to himself.

But his mild irritation quickly dissipated as he became aware of Alex’s excitement over a moth and its colorful wings. They took photos of the insect and later looked up some information about it on the Internet.

“My kids’ wonder about the world has reintroduced me to childhood,” he said.

Exploring the outdoors with children also provides parents a different perspective, Dunfield said. Instead of always aiming for a goal such as finishing a 10-mile hike or climbing to the top of a mountain, he has learned to slow down and be more mindful of his surroundings.

“Kids dictate the pace and the distance,” he said. “My son (4 ½-year-old Keenan) is my touchstone. As soon as his smile fades, then I know it’s time to throw rocks, look at bugs or do something else for a while. As parents, we have to listen to our children and be open to them.”

While the group might appeal most to people with children, Bachman and Dunfield hope to bring together people of all ages and experiences and from all walks of life.

This openness to diversity is reflected in the group’s name, said Bachman, who was recently presented with the Sierra Club’s Madelyn Pyeatt Award for his work with young people.

The Arrowleaf Balsam Root, which is a type of sunflower, can be found throughout the region in the summertime, he explained.

“It’s quintessential Spokane,” he said. “It’s a root with many flowers. The sunflower is a metaphor for family. It’s a symbol that shows all are welcome.”

Virginia de Leon is a Spokane-based freelance writer. Reach her at Virginia_de_leon


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