THE IMPORTANCE OF BEING DURABLE: Building Natural Strength in Our Kids

About the Author

A bike-riding, creek-splashing, rugged individualist, JJ Madden is a science, environment, and relationship communicator. She is a community leader, blogger, speaker and journalism professor based in Washington, D.C. where she literally and figuratively builds bridges to greater well-being. JJ’s writing and videography have appeared on ABC News, PBS, Discovery Health Channel, in The Washington Post and at

Words we’ve been hearing in the news lately are being touted as good academic medicine by some schools around the U.S. One is resilience—the ability to face adversity with confidence and gritted teeth. Then there’s grit itselfthe single-minded stick-to-it-tiveness that welcomes mistakes for their teaching potential.

Now comes the even broader term, durable. Like the slogan, “Built to Last,” durable means to be the best human being you can be, capitalizing on your own unique powers and drawing strength from the natural world around you.

In The Durable Human Manifesto, I applaud these words from Richard Louv’s best-seller, Last Child in the Woods“One might argue that the internet has replaced the woods, in terms of inventive space, but no electronic environment stimulates all the senses.”

Quote - Maria Montessori
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Indeed, the essence of being durable is to appreciate that our senses are what give humans our edge over machines.  We can see, hear, taste, smell and have the magical sense of touch. But even when we may lack one or more of those Famous Five, we have many other human-only attributes including creativity, intuition, compassion, and—especially obvious in children—the sweet sense of wonder.

But these days, our awesome human abilities are getting swamped. If we sit too long at a keyboard, for instance, our highly-evolved muscles atrophy from lack of use. The same can happen to our minds. As I cite in my upcoming book, Cover Your AssetsChinese researchers are studying a condition they call “Internet Addiction Disorder” which causes “academic failure and reduced work performance” plus significant changes in the structure of the brain. Turns out that students who spend more than 10 hours online per day have less gray matter—the thinking stuff—than students who spend two hours or less on digital media. The researchers conclude: “Structural abnormalities in the internal capsule [of the brain] could consequently interfere with the cognitive function and impair executive and memory functions.”

This could explain the tragic consequences for a 15-year-old South Korean who doctors determined has “digital dementia.” For a full decade after he turned five, the boy “intensively” watched TV, played video games and used the web. His memory has now deteriorated to the point he can’t remember the 6-digit code to get into his house.

So it may be that the ability to be a durable human in a world of tireless devices boils down to opportunity cost. If we don’t pay enough attention, the time we spend on technology can gobble up the hours available for everything else, including mind- (and body-) wandering, from which new ideas spring.

That’s why kids need unfettered time to explore. As I write in The Manifesto,“Early childhood is the only time in life when a person is completely free to discover his or her native ‘gifts.’ I’m not saying that gifts of tablets and apps are not amazing, but their time will come. In the meantime, when toddlers range around, freely using all of their senses to examine, taste and play with whatever they choose, they are making rich and lifelong neural connections.” If they do that before diving deeply into tech, they’ll learn first about their own operating systems and what makes themselves tick.

Older kids need down time, too. Although they may have less time to play, the simple act of getting themselves to school can benefit their bodies and minds and connect them with the soul-sustaining rhythms of nature. “It is really interesting that the exercise you get from transporting yourself to school reflects on your ability to concentrate for about four hours into the school day,” observes public health research director Niels Egelund of Denmark’s Aarhus University. So, by walking or biking to school—or even just a stroll to the bus stop—kids gain more autonomy plus settle down to schoolwork faster, concentrate better and ultimately learn more.

I invite you to learn more about about  The Durable Human Manifestoa breezy 10-minute read you can download for free.

Additional Reading and Resourc

The Hybrid Mind: The More High-Tech Schools Become, the More Nature They Need 

C&NN Report on Education: Children’s Contact with the Outdoors and Nature

C&NN Research & Resources: Studies, Reports & Publications




  1. Digital dementia. I’d never heard about that. Really scary!!! WE are slowly but surely killing ourselves and our whole planet in the process. 🙁

  2. Jenifer Joy Madden

    Well, it does sound scary, but we have to keep in mind that the child who developed “digital dementia” was way overexposed to digital media. The way we can avoid that fate is to pay attention to how we live. To be balanced and durable we and our kids need to sensibly apportion our time between interacting with tech, getting outdoors (so we know it and love it), going to work or school, and everything else we need or want to do (including getting sound, restful sleep!) The Durable Human Manifesto has a pretty upbeat outlook on the future. Hope you have a few minutes to check it out.

  3. Jenifer, Here in Stony Brook on Long Island we are making a difference with kids at Avalon Park and Preserve. I whole heartedly agree with what you are saying and it kills me every time I see a mother hand their tiny child their phone so they can play a game on it. Yikes.
    One of my daughter’s biggest frustrations growing up in our suburban neighborhood was that no one played outside. It’s true… where are all the kids riding bikes, digging in the dirt, playing in the snow…… hiding in their houses??

    At Avalon I have developed a haven for kids who want to be outside and explore and get dirty. While it is limited in the amount of kids that attend we do make a difference and I am so proud of all my outdoor kids!!
    I would love for you to take a look at what I do. If you have the opportunity look please see my blog at Being outdoors with these kids fills me with joy! Kudos on your work! Peace, Sue

  4. Jenifer Joy Madden

    What wonderful work you are doing, Sue! You are a hero and a pioneer! The unstructured nature of your classes is the best part.

    So you don’t feel completely alone, I hope you’ve seen the article “The Overprotected Kid” by Hanna Rosin in this month’s Atlantic. You may be cheered to see the tide may be turning – at least in the UK.

    Here in the U.S., my dear friend Janice McPhillips is also doing great things at Holly Hill Farm in Cohasset, Mass. and, as Rich has pointed out, many nature preschools are springing up. The National Wildlife Federation’s Eco-Schools initiative is also becoming quite popular. See

    I believe there is hope for our litigious society. Most parents just need to think back on their own childhoods to understand what “wild humanhood” (I coin that term in The Durable Human Manifesto 🙂 – is all about and why it’s so important for every kid to experience.

  5. Dearest Jen, how wonderful to see you here. I have admired your vision for sometime now and you continue to inspire me in more ways than you can ever imagine. I whole-heartedly agree with the need to provide a balance not just in our children’s lives but our own lives too. I have seen so many adults fall victim to the seduction of online entertainment, leaving behind the REAL world and the REAL-LIFE experiences for the cyber world. Most importantly is that we provide opportunities for our children to FALL IN LOVE with nature and I truly believe everyone is capable of doing this. It’s about making choices. What is more important than the RELATIONSHIP. So many of us have forgotten what is true and meaningful, what it means to be HUMAN. Your fabulous and thought provoking ebook “The Durable Human Manifesto” is a great reminder for us all….thank you for all that you do and for being true and open…In the end we can not tell people what to do. We can however share our experiences and wisdom. We all have our own opinions and beliefs. I can only share my experiences and from having 3 teenagers live through the tech years I have realised that having immersed them in nature at an early age, it nurtured a deep love and respect for the natural world. All three of my children continue to return to that place of tranquility, to that sense of wonder, sense of adventure and a place of peace. The early years are by far the most fundamental years to instill a love of the natural world in a child and why I have dedicated my lifes work to helping reconnect our children to Mother Nature. I truly believe that in time (with beautiful souls like yourself Jen and many others), we will awaken to what we know in our hearts to be true and find that balance, using technology as a tool rather than the main source of entertainment. Thank you Jen for being you and thank you to the Children and Nature Network for the amazing work they do. Wishing you a beautiful week in nature, love and peace Marghanita x

  6. Jenifer Joy Madden

    Dearest Marghanita – I’m so happy you took the time to write. Your nature-kissed artwork and dolls and classes are proof of your dedication to helping kids fall in love with the outdoors. “Gentle warrior” Orange Moon and your other creations are such perfect messengers to help kids cherish their nature – inside and out. This post says it all:


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