According to Louv’s Last Child in the Woods, children today do not possess the same level of creativity and imagination as children in the past. Additionally, they are over-stressed and do not receive enough physical activity. He also cites the rising number of cases of ADD/ADHD when he discusses the lack of natural stimuli in children’s’ lives. In other words, our children do not spend enough time outside exploring nature.
We have talked about the first two reasons Louv cites as being the cause for this problem: parental fears and decreased access to nature. The third reason Louv cites is the “lure of the screen.” Video games, television, movies, and computers are all culprits in this phenomenon. As technology takes over so many areas of life, it is hard to escape the fact that most of us are exposed to a “screen” almost every day for at least some amount of time.
If I were to analyze my “screen” usage, I would have to say that the primary reason I am “plugged in” outside of work is simple enjoyment. Additionally, I find video games, movies and television to be distracting from everyday worries and relaxing overall. I can act out my anger, blow off steam, or live a complete fantasy. As an adult, I have the ability – and exercise is regularly – to pull myself away from my fantasy life and deal with the issues of reality. However, I can easily see how children and teenagers can get pulled into this fantasy world of the screens and become more adapt at navigating these landscapes than they do real life.
The child being bullied gains control and acts out his ideas of revenge in a video game. The shy teen that finds it hard to make friends can do so anonymously on-line. Movies and television offer the same kinds of escape – along with a sedentary lifestyle and the almost compulsory snack foods. Yes, there are constructive outlets for creativity and learning on the internet and some video games. I am not by any means stating that all screen usage is bad! I am stating that in many cases, those involved would better benefit from constructive interaction with others to learn coping skills, interpersonal skills, socialization, and to exercise their creativity in more vivid and out-going manners.
In the fantasy world of on-line games, the world and its characters are created by someone else and the child simply learns to navigate it. In the woods, trees become lookout towers; a hedge of bushes or a stand of rocks becomes a fort. Adventurers search for treasures in hollow stumps. Sword fights (with broken sticks) take place across a carpet of leaves and children jump onto or over fallen tree trunks as they vie for the upper hand. Worlds of pirates, cowboys and Indians, or space invasions are possible and all it takes is the child’s imagination to turn a simple setting into a glorious afternoon of adventures. The scenarios are powered completely by the child. The added bonuses are the benefits of fresh air and sunshine, exercise, an outlet for energy and relief from anxiety.
Even a walking trail in a local park with parents can turn into an adventure when guided with a touch of imagination. Smaller children enjoy on-going stories about the creatures – squirrels, birds, insects – they see along the trail. Is that squirrel jumping from tree to tree really a look-out following to be sure you don’t find the location of the forest party? The birds that took off from a nearby tree could either be carrying a message to the wizard at a nearby castle or they could have been frightened by an approaching dragon. Older children may be more interested in the peculiarities of the creatures you see. Are they aware that a squirrel’s hips are double-jointed to insure speed, that they can jump 20 feet, and can fall 100 feet without getting hurt? How about the fact that their name means “shadow tail” in Greek? The older children may want to make up their own stories about the ShadowTail world.
As parents, it is very easy to allow the various screens in our lives to become baby-sitters for our children. It may buy us time or even a few peaceful moments, but how high is the cost? In talking with a variety of professionals in the current public school system, it is evident that the children in elementary and middle school are easily bored, lack social skills that allow them to make friends, and are reluctant to test their own abilities by trying new endeavors.
According to the Anxiety and Depression Association of America (ADAA), “Anxiety disorders affect one in eight children. Research shows that untreated children with anxiety disorders are at higher risk to perform poorly in school, miss out on important social experiences, and engage in substance abuse.” According to the National Institute of Mental Health, 25% of these children will show a lifetime prevalence of some form of anxiety disorder.
Furthermore, psychologists Jasper Smits and Michael Otto, at the March 2010 annual meeting of the ADAA, presented their research findings that showed that that exercise appears to have a “tremendous benefit” for anxiety-related mental health issues. In fact, they strongly urged healthcare professionals to prescribe exercise as part of their treatment plans. In a study conducted by the Mayo Clinic, it was found that exercise benefits nervous, depressed, and anxiety-ridden people by releasing “feel-good” brain chemicals, reducing immune system chemicals that can make these conditions worse, and increasing body temperature, which has a calming effect. In addition, exercise can help children and adults alike gain confidence, relieve worries, supply social interaction, and provide a positive coping method.
Move these benefits into nature, which provides an obvious calming effect, include the outlet of creativity and imagination, and children will soon benefit from the combination of elements that were once considered to be normal childhood pastimes! To many, Louv’s theories on the benefits of nature to children may seem over simplistic; however, it is easy to track the correlation between increased “screen” usage, decreased outdoors activities, and the increase in ADD/ADHD, anxiety disorders, poor social skills, and other social issues in children. Perhaps getting back to basics truly is the positive answer.