Tuesday, March 13, 2007

Children and Nature

As a child I roamed free in the woods and fields and ranged around for miles on my bicycle. My friends and I hid secret messages in hollow sticks, cut willow to make bows and arrows, climbed trees, and swam in the river unsupervised. Most people my age have similar memories. Even those who spent their whole childhood in the city remember playing outside, walking to school etc.

My own offspring, though they grew up in the suburbs, still made mudpies, climbed the huge tree at the end of our garden, played for hours outside, biked around the neighbourhood and walked unaccompanied to school, shops and municipal swimming pool.

Sadly, many youngsters in our modern, Western cultures now live indoor lives. Nature is something on TV. Grass stains, daisy chains, muddy knees and frogs in your pocket have been replaced by consoles, joysticks, mobile phones and virtual reality. Imagination has been hijacked by the Disney Corporation and most playthings come in plastic.

There also appears to be an 'epidemic' of Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD), a condition little-known before the 1980s. An estimated six million children in the USA are now being given amphetamine-like drugs to control their unruly behaviour and unfocused attention.

Are these two phenomena – children's loss of contact with Nature and the alarming rise of ADHD – connected? Since human beings co-evolved for millions of years in deep, reciprocal relationship with the natural world, could it be that moving out of that relationship into artificially-created, urban environments has negative consequences for our wellbeing as a species and for the healthy development of our young?

This is not mere conjecture. Author Richard Louv has researched the connection very thoroughly and in his book Last Child in the Woods he presents sufficient evidence, both experimental and anecdotal, to suggest that by keeping our children indoors we are creating something he calls 'nature deficit disorder'. It is not a clinical diagnosis – not yet anyway. But it is a wonderfully apt name for the condition we our producing.

Why do we do it? Why do we keep our children inside when they should be out playing in the countryside, the park or even just in the backyard or the street?
Louv explores all the reasons. They range from the fear created by media focus on the (small and actually not increasing) number of children harmed by strangers or in accidents, to the officious attitudes of planners and local government officials for whom parks are neat and tidy places and to whom ten-year-old fort-builders appear a menace.

As a grandparent now, I am thrilled to see the delight my grandsons are taking in being outdoors, in the woods, in the park, even splashing in puddles. I've noticed they even spontaneously hug trees. (Must be genetic!!) And I'm thrilled that their parents give them plenty of opportunities to do all those things.

The latest edition of Orion Magazine has a splendid article by Richard Louv entitled "Leave No Child Inside". If you are as interested in this subject as I am, click here to read the article.


Anonymous said...

I think the answer is FEAR. I can't imagine there is any other reason to willingly cut our children off from nature.

Nik said...

Great post. I know for me, the kids are inside a bit too often when *I'm* feeling too lazy to get out of the house and therefore they suffer for it. After reading your post I have really made the effort to get out doing what we all love best. It seems getting out for a walk somewhere by 9am is a great refreshing way to start the day and seems to kickstart everybody's heads for a more peaceful day too. Coincidence? I think not. Thanks too for commenting on my blog, I've enjoyed reading your thoughts - particularly on ageing. You're an inspiration. :)

turnip said...

I am pregnant with my first am still getting through Last Child in the Woods...I think EVERY parent should read that book! Luckily, both my husband and I were able to grow up and run and play, build forts and spend most of our time outdoors. His mother is a teacher and has seen the change in behavior of children over the years as they become more and more glued to TV, video games and become more sedentary. Not to mention she feels(as well as my husband and I) that kids are so OVERscheduled these days and don't have time to just be a kid and it seems to hurt their development and happiness. My baby will be with me in the garden all summer!

Alison Peters said...

Thanks so much for the link to Orion. That article and many others at the site just made my week.

The afternoon after I read it, I went to the park with a friend. Her son climbed to the top of the tallest tree- almost three storeys high. My friend nearly died and told him to come down instantly. Part of me was nervous (this child has a history of breaking body parts...) but another part of me thought 'good on him'. I remembered a special place in a tree above the roof of our childhood home, how often I went there just to sit.

I am now looking for trees (perhaps not three storeys high ones) for my kids to cut their climbing teeth on! Or perhaps the point is I should let them find them for themselves.

Anonymous said...

Dear Elderwoman,
This is my first visit to your wonderful blog. I landed here via Cate's blog. You bring up such an important topic here. I loved the description of your childhood, and the photo is precious! I was born in 1959, thus still of the time of playing outside. The kids that I know LOVE being outside, but they are so overprogrammed that they rarely have the chance to just hang out at a pond or explore a stream for hours like I did as a child.