Richard Louv, author of Last Child In The Woods, believes today’s children are more disconnected from the natural world than prior generations. Why is this occurring? Louv states that it’s not only computers, television, and video games that are keeping kids inside (hence the quote in his book from a 4th grader: “I like to play indoors better ’cause that’s where all the electrical outlets are.”); but also their parents’ fears of traffic, strangers, Lyme disease, and West Nile virus; their schools’ emphasis on more and more homework; their structured schedules; and their lack of access to natural areas. Local governments, neighborhood associations, and even organizations devoted to the outdoors are placing legal and regulatory constraints on many wild spaces, sometimes making natural play a crime.
Does it really matter if the current generations of children are outdoors less? Louy believes it does. In fact, almost suggests we could classify an ailment after it: Nature Deficit Disorder. As children’s connections to nature diminish, the social, psychological, and spiritual implications become apparent. Research shows that nature can offer powerful therapy for such maladies as depression, obesity, and attention deficit disorder. Environment-based education dramatically improves standardized test scores and grade-point averages and develops skills in problem solving, critical thinking, and decision making. Anecdotal evidence strongly suggests that childhood experiences in nature stimulate creativity.
However, those points were not that new or interesting to me. I was particularly interested in his assertion that exposing children to their natural surroundings actually makes them safer. Video and structured games tell you the rules, nature does not. There is no sign on a snake telling us if it’s poisonous; marker floating on water telling us if there is a current or sticky bottom; or balloon in the air warning us if the current clouds are bringing severe weather. However, allow a child to nurture a relationship with his surroundings and you give the child a heightened awareness and sensitivity that leads to experience, which leads to his ability to solve problems, avert dangers and become an independent citizen of the earth.
Is there a solution? Sure. Some will require school and government support. However, we can start by realizing that it is no longer a leisure pastime but a life's necessity to go outdoors into unstructured areas (i.e., not playgrounds, amusement parks).
It feels kinda nice knowing I (the Daddy) am actually helping my son when we go outside in our yard and look for “bugs” in the grass, around trees for “dinosaurs and stuff”, and near water for “big fish and mermaids”. We don’t take any toys, we find them outside in the form of an acorn (use the top to feed the bugs), sticks (to stir the water so mermaids come), and leaves (to hide in until the dinosaurs and stuff come out). As Louv suggested, our son seems calmer outside, doesn’t fuss or quickly jump between activities, and invents what he needs to make his game work. Nevertheless, just reading Louv’s logical argument (true or not is besides the point) that time in an unstructured area is a positive use of time and the excitement in my son’s voice or movements as he spots “something” or quickly hands me something to help him feed or find that “something” is enough for me.