Thursday, September 26, 2013

UI research shows time in natural environments key to healthy human development

UI research shows time in natural environments key to healthy human development

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Some parents, says Andrea Faber Taylor, will get their children outside because that’s natural to them. Other parents may or may not, because they consider regular outdoor activity an accessory. That is, they’ll get the kids outdoors if there’s time left after schoolwork and basketball and dance and the myriad other activities that seem to fill up the days.

Faber Taylor and her colleagues at the University of Illinois Landscape and Human Health Laboratory want to change the way adults in this second group think. They want everyone to understand that time spent outdoors in green spaces is a key to healthy development in all children. And they are active contributors to the growing body of academic research that supports the case for this perspective.

[Photo by Andrea Faber Taylor: two of her daughters at play in a stream.]

The Landscape and Human Health Laboratory is directed by Ming Kuo, whose expertise in cognitive and environmental psychology is complemented by Faber Taylor’s knowledge of horticulture and children’s behavior and environments.

Some of their most fruitful recent work has shown that a “dose” of activity in a green setting can be a useful tool for treating the symptoms of children with ADHD. Starting from the understanding that exposure to natural environments enhances attention among people in the general population, they hypothesized that the same would hold true among children with attention deficits.

In their field studies, the team from the lab compared how children’s ADHD symptoms were affected by going for a twenty minute walk in three different settings: a park, a neighborhood with trees and grass, and a downtown space lacking any significant green.

What they found was that a walk in a park enabled the children to perform significantly better on tests of concentration and impulse control than a walk in either of the other settings.

The field study corroborates what researchers with the lab have found through a number of surveys of parents whose children have been diagnosed with ADHD. In the most recent of those, which collected data using a national, internet-based survey, they found that regardless of income or gender, children who play regularly in green settings experience milder ADHD symptoms than children who play indoors or in built up outdoor settings.

Taylor and Kuo’s findings about the benefits of activity in green space for children with ADHD serve as an extension of previous research by members of the lab on the role of green space in human well being. And it leads them to advocate for designing communities with green space in mind, and making play in green space a priority in the daily life of children.

This week the Landscape and Human Health Lab has partnered with environmental educators at the Urbana Park District and the Champaign County Forest Preserve District to celebrate “Take a Child Outside Week.” A number of events associated with this effort will take place on Saturday, These include trash clean ups at Busey Woods and Meadowbrook Park in Urbana, and an opportunity to help install plants to benefit wildlife at the Perkins Road Wet Prairie. Details about these events are available through the Take a Child Outside Week page on the Web site of the Champaign County Forest Preserve District.

I would add that helping children connect with nature requires neither organized programs nor the setting of a big park. When we’re in the right frame of mind, the outside is as close as the nearest door.

Thursday, September 19, 2013

Upcoming opportunities for education, action on water issues

Upcoming opportunities for education, action on water issues

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There’s nothing like a long, hot dry spell to draw attention to the critical role of water in our lives, especially for those of us continuing to nurse along vegetable gardens. A little further consideration provides a reminder that water also plays a key role in most of the ongoing environmental issues in central Illinois.

In DeWitt County, for example, citizens are waging a years-long battle to prevent a landfill from taking in soil laden with PCBs from a federally mandated cleanup in Chicago. Why? Because the landfill site overlays the Mahomet Aquifer, which supplies water for approximately 800,000 area residents.

In Vermilion and Champaign counties, citizens are fighting to prevent the incursion of a new coalmine. People in the immediate vicinity of the site oppose the loss of farmland and other environmental degradation associated with surface operations of a mine. But people from a broader circle are engaged in the effort over concerns about water. They question how the demand for water by the mine will affect supplies available for other uses. And they point out that pollution generated by mining would threaten the Salt Fork of the Vermilion River.

The Salt Fork may be known and loved by fewer people than the Middle Fork of the Vermilion, which runs through Kickapoo State Park. But both rivers provide excellent opportunities for recreation and critical habitat for wildlife. They’re the rivers where two species of federally endangered mussels were recently reintroduced.

[Photos: above, the author's wife enjoys paddling the Salt Fork; right, the Vermilion River system supports a rich diversity of mussels.]

Earlier this year, when the Champaign-Urbana Sanitary District agreed to supply water for a fertilizer factory proposed in Tuscola, it did so over the opposition of citizens who are concerned that cutting back the district’s clean discharge into the Saline Branch (a tributary of the Salt Fork) will degrade conditions for aquatic life there. (You may or may not remember it, but in a column last Fall I called attention to the dramatic rise of fish diversity in the Saline Branch found by a recent scientific survey.)

In terms of scale, it should be remembered, none of these impacts comes close to the current and potential future impacts of industrial agriculture. The dead zone in the Gulf of Mexico, for example, which covered an area the size of Connecticut this summer, begins with fertilizer pollution from fields in Illinois and other corn growing states. And no other potential demand for water from the Mahomet Aquifer compares to the potential demand represented by an expansion of agricultural irrigation in Champaign and surrounding counties.

I call attention to these issues not to bring you down, but to motivate you to take advantage of four opportunities for learning and action.

This Saturday, September 21, staff from Prairie Rivers Network will lead a bicycle tour of four residential rain gardens in Champaign. The “Rain Garden Ramble” will begin at the Prairie Rivers Network Office, 1902 Fox Drive, Suite G, Champaign, at 2:00 p.m. and is scheduled to last until 4:00. It is free and open to the public, but organizers ask that your register in advance via the following link so they know how many people to look for:

Also on Saturday, the Upper Sangamon River Conservancy will conduct a clean up on the Sangamon to celebrate “It’s Our River Day.” The clean up will be based at the Izaak Walton Cabin at Lake of the Woods Forest Preserve in Mahomet and begin at 8:30 a.m. Details and registration at

On Thursday, September 26, the Prairie Group of the Sierra Club will sponsor a panel discussion about water in Champaign County, “where it comes from, where it goes to, and how we can protect it along the way.” This event will take place at the Champaign Public Library and begin with a reception at 6:30 p.m. The panel discussion is slated for 7:00 to 8:30. Further details at

Beginning on October 6, the First Presbyterian Church of Urbana will conduct a six-week public seminar series titled, “Fresh Water Availability: Confronting the Immense Challenge.” These talks will be conducted by local experts and invite active participation. Topics will range from the availability of water globally to individual conservation in east central Illinois. They will take place from 10:45 to 11:30 a.m., in the Fellowship Hall, 602 West Green Street, Urbana. Further details at

Thursday, September 05, 2013

Annual cicadas enliven dog days with love song

Annual cicadas enliven dog days with love song

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Even if the heat and humidity of recent weeks have limited your time outdoors, I bet you’ve been hearing a familiar insect song. It’s the mating call of dog day cicadas, loud enough to rise above the drone of air conditioners and so persistent and widespread that people who hear can hardly miss it.

I say, “dog day cicada” I mean the insect (pictured right) that goes by the two-part scientific name, “Tibicen canicularis,” which is the most common species of forest dwelling cicada that occurs in the eastern U.S. and Canada, one that has also adapted well to life in urban and suburban settings where enough trees grow to support it. These cicadas have bulky, bodies about an inch and a half long that are dark on top with green and white markings, and entirely white below. At rest their clear, heavily veined wings close over the back like a pitched roof and add another half inch to their length.

Some people call these and other cicadas locusts, a name that was first applied to them by settlers of European extraction for whom the emergence of large broods called to mind the plagues of the Bible. But the name locust is more properly applied to certain grasshoppers. Other people know cicadas by the name “harvestfly,” which derives from the fact that they emerge as adults at the same time crops are maturing.

The singing of dog day cicadas is one of the loudest insect noises on earth, sometimes exceeding 110 decibels up close. This means the song of a cicada perched your shoulder would be plenty loud to damage your hearing. The song is often compared to the whirring of a circular saw, although I think that comparison ought to be reversed, since cicadas have been around far longer than power tools. The earliest fossil record of a cicada dates back 65 million years.

[Photos by author: above, cicada "singing" on a tree trunk; below, newly captured and paralyzed cicada in the grip of a cicada killer wasp.]

The fact that dog day cicadas are also called annual cicadas sometimes generates confusion about their life cycle, but do they live for more than a year. They start out as tiny nymphs, which hatch from eggs laid in tree branches. These nymphs drop to the ground and burrow down to find a root they can latch onto for nourishment, and there they remain, probably for something like two to five years. (Scientists aren’t sure exactly how long, and the span probably varies according to conditions affecting the cicada’s development.) Some annual cicadas emerge as adults each year because their generations are staggered, which sets them apart from periodical cicadas, generations of which mature in synch, on 13- and 17-year cycles.

It is a common misperception that adult cicadas do not feed, but the fact is they have all the mouthparts needed to extract liquid from plants, and they’re not afraid to use them. Dog day cicadas do no damage to trees as they feed, and no measures to control them are warranted.

The only warm-blooded predators that pose a significant threat to cicadas are birds, but there’s another insect that specializes in them, the cicada killer wasp. A female cicada killer stings a cicada to paralyze it, then carries it back to her burrow still alive. There she seals the unlucky creature in a chamber with one of her eggs, to become nourishment for the grub that hatches.

But that’s not where I want to leave you. Let’s get back to cicadas singing their love song in trees, and appreciate how that enriches our summer.