I recently picked up a book called Last Child in the Woods: Saving Our Children From Nature-Deficit Disorder which details cutting-edge studies that link the lack of nature in children’s lives to the growing rise in obesity, attention disorders, and depression. The Author, Richard Louv, makes the case that direct exposure to nature is essential to a child’s healthy physical and emotional development. Additionally, he talks about how children today are so disconnected from where their food comes from and how the way we live effects the world we live in, that they may grow up to be adults who have less compassion for animals and nature. I began to wonder about my two city kids and how good a job I was doing in the nature-deficit department.
Growing up in an apartment in Brooklyn, NY in the 1970’s and 80’s I wouldn’t say that I had an overwhelming exposure to nature. But I do have some very clear memories that have to do with being outdoors and experiencing nature in a powerful way. My very early years were spent traveling throughout Europe with my hippie parents living in such far-flung places as Ibiza, Perugia, London and beyond. I have no real memories beyond the stories I was told, but the photos I have show a child completely free to run through fields, inspect bugs, gather flowers and spin tales of “friends” who lived in the woods. I have to believe that these experiences shaped the way I think in a fundamental way.
I do very clearly remember, however, walking through the woods in upstate New York with my dad as we searched for mushrooms. He had a book that detailed all the different types and which ones were OK to eat and so forth. We ate the small ones, sauteed in an omelette and my father carved the soft, white flesh of the giant mushrooms with intricate pictures, like scrimshaw, using a small knife. He sat with me and showed me the delicate spokes that fanned out from the stalk along the undersides; they seemed to me to be magical fairy umbrellas. I remember exploring the overgrown fields around my grandmother’s home, as we made our way down to the lake. We picked tiny, wild strawberries in her front yard and cucumbers and tomatoes from her garden. One of my favorite outdoor memories is of my father and I slipping through a broken chain link fence into a forgotten and overgrown garden at a nearby park where we would take our dogs for a walk. Once inside, we would sit beneath a shady tree in the tall grass and read from the book, Watership Down; one chapter at a time, hour after hour it seemed. Just the two of us, as the dogs ran free, and bumblebees buzzed lazily nearby. Even these infrequent, but special, moments spent outdoors taught me to respect nature and all that it provides.
So, although I was raised in the heart of one of the busiest cities in the world, I knew, from experience, the difference between the fun I might have, say, playing at a friend’s house or the enjoyment I got from watching TV, and the pure bliss I felt when I was exploring the world outside. Not that I ever became an outdoor adventure type, but I do recognize the rejuvenation and stress reduction I feel when I spend even a little time near water, the woods, listening to birds chatter, watching a sun set…I can only imagine it does the same for my children.
Last Child in the Woods begins with a powerful quote from Walt Whitman:
“There was a child went forth every day,
And the first object he look’d upon, that object he became.
And that object became part of him for the day or a certain part of the day,
Or for many years or stretching cycles of years.
The early lilacs became part of this child,
And grass and white and red morning glories, and white and red clover,
and the song of the phoebe-bird,
And the Third-month lambs and the sow’s pink-faint litter,
and the mare’s foal and the cow’s calf…”
How can we expect a child who spends his days indoors, or so closely guarded by anxious parents, to understand this sense of oneness with the world? Richard Louv talks about how even in areas where outdoor play is accessible that “Countless communities have virtually outlawed unstructured outdoor nature play, often because of the threat of lawsuits, but also because of a growing obsession with order.” How much are children today missing by not having the opportunity to build a treehouse fort or explore a babbling stream? I know how lucky my children are that we live in Southern California and can explore the world most months of the year. But do I take full advantage of it? What more can I do?
Some ideas for getting your kids outdoors and loving it:
- From Richard Louv’s book: “Tell your children stories about your special childhood places in nature. Then help them find their own: leaves beneath a backyard willow, the ditch behind the house, the meadow in the woods, the turn of a creek. In Washington State, the Wilderness Awareness School calls this a ‘sit spot’, recommending, ‘let this be a place where you learn to sit still — alone, often, and quietly…This will become your place of intimate connection with nature.’ ” The Wilderness Awareness School, by the way, looks amazing. If you have the opportunity, check it out!
- Children & Nature Network. I love this site. From their bio: “The Children & Nature Network (C&NN) was created to encourage and support the people and organizations working nationally and internationally to reconnect children with nature. The network provides a critical link between researchers and individuals, educators and organizations dedicated to children’s health and well-being”.
- Go Explore Nature A blog focused on, you guessed it, outdoor play!
- Childhood 101 A great blog overall, this particular post is titled “24 Ideas For Family Fun In The Backyard”
- Active Kids Club a great place for inspiration or to connect with parents in your area who want to create outdoor play groups.
- Encourage your kids to go camping in the backyard. Join the National Wildlife Foundation’s Great American Backyard Campout.
- Our 4-year old son has recently discovered a love of photography. It’s very easy to get him outdoors with a camera and he gets up close to bugs, leaves, dirt etc. Afterwards, we print out the ones he loves most and are making a book together. Then we can research information about the things he took pictures of. It gets him excited to go out and do it again!
These are just a few ideas, what do your kids love doing that gets them connected with nature? What are your thoughts about our children’s generation needing more time spent outdoors? And what are your favorite childhood memories of the outdoors that you would want to share with your children? I’d love to hear what you think.