Summer days when I was a child (no speculations, please!) were spent in the sunshine or under the shade of the trees. We rode our bicycles everywhere and while we lived in an urban subdivision, there were still wooded areas left to explore. At the end of the street was a church ball field and behind this, the woods were full of trails which we had helped to carve. There was Elephant Rock, a perfect place to climb or sun like a lizard; a small stream, and – if we were bold and defied our mothers – the river was only a few blocks away. We tested ourselves, and each other, for strength and endurance, never realizing that this was what we were doing. We just wanted to be “the best” at whatever outdoor task we attempted. We caught pollywogs and put them in a backyard “kiddie” pool, watching with surprise and interest as they turned into frogs. We watched squirrels play, lay on our backs and stared at the clouds, and roamed the woods without fear.
I do realize that children are not as safe to “roam” as they were when I was a child; however, there are still plenty of opportunities for them to explore nature. Somehow the importance of the connection between children and nature has been forgotten – or at least the connection has been given less importance than in the past. I know that I also loved to read, but if my mother felt I had been in the house for too long, I was sure to hear those famous words: “Get yourself outside! Get some fresh air and sunshine. Go run around for a little while. It’s good for you.” How often do we insist that our children put down a book – or video game controls – in order to spend time outdoors? Probably not often enough.
The Children & Nature Network was “created to encourage and support the people and organizations working to reconnect children with nature.” The Children & Nature Network (C&NN) believes that many problems currently experienced by children – obesity, Attention Deficit Disorder, and impaired social skills, to name a few – are a direct result of nature deprivation in our children. The organization does not preach that technology or structured activities are bad, just that family life is often “out of balance” when it comes to providing children with free-time to experience nature and de-stress. According to Cheryl Charles, President of C&NN, “children are smarter, cooperative, happier and healthier when they have frequent and varied opportunities for free and unstructured play out-of doors.”
Richard Louv, author of Last Child in the Woods: Saving Our Children from Nature Deficit Disorder, states that the term “nature deficit disorder” describes “the human costs of alienation from nature, among them: diminished use of the senses, attention difficulties, and higher rates of physical and emotional illnesses.” And the “illness” does not confine itself to children – families and indeed, entire communities suffer, according to the author.
When I first considered the idea of nature deficit disorder, I must admit that I thought it sounded – a little kooky. However, I believe that one of the reasons I thought this way was because I never experienced a deficit of nature in my life as a child or as an adult. Additionally, while I raised my children in a suburb, this did not keep me from providing them with experiences in and with nature. We planted gardens, getting our hands dirty and watching the flowers grow. We even attempted a vegetable garden. We explored the microcosms in the yard, from the tiny bugs that live in our flower beds to the lizards that climb the trellis, to the birds that build their nests on our porch. Watching those baby birds hatch and grow and learn to fly was an awe-inspiring experience. We planted trees; we camped; we visited nearby parks to hike along the river; we go on night-time “owl prowls” and explore the river banks on our own in search of glow worms. I could go one for pages about our nature experiences. My daughters have a healthy respect for nature and they have learned how to use nature to relieve stress and to achieve personal balance.
So maybe nature deficit disorder is not such a far-fetched notion. I am including the web links for the Children & Nature Network below. They have a chart that shows C&NN affiliated activities in states across the nation. I encourage you to look up your state and see what is going on. In my state, we have a movement called No Child Left Inside. If you cannot find a C&NN sponsored activity, then I encourage you to search out a local park or drive out to the country and take your children on a picnic or a hike in the woods. Turn over a rock and see who is living underneath. Listen to all the communications going on in the “peaceful woods” between birds, squirrels and other small animals, and even the insects. Take your child outside at night and gaze at the stars.
I am currently reading Louv’s Last Child in the Woods and will be sharing my thoughts on the book with my readers in the next few weeks. Until then, reacquaint yourself and your children with nature and see if you don’t notice a positive difference in your family. I think that you will be surprised.