On Monday night Prairiewolf and I had the opportunity to attend a talk given by Richard Louv, author of Last Child in the Woods: Saving Our Children From Nature Deficit Disorder.
This book has been creating quite a stir in the environmental education community since it was published 3 years ago, so I was vaguely familiar with it. I hadn't, however, read it. Louv's lecture was not only interesting, it encouraged me to pick up his book so that I could delve deeper into his research and findings.,
(Note: I've just started reading the book. Most of the following commentary is based on his talk, his "sermonette" as he called it, and on my concerns and observations.)
Louv has been able to pinpoint a phenomenon that many of us, working with children and nature over the years, have noticed. He's gone further, then, to solidify our growing unease into a coherent theory of a radical change occurring within our culture.
That change, to paraphrase Louv, is the growing alienation of our children from nature.
The need of most children to play outside has basically been an accepted part of childhood throughout human history. In fact, for most of human history, all of us, adults and children, spent a great majority of our time outdoors, interacting with the natural world.
It's been such an accepted part of human behavior that no one has thought to study it...or has even thought much about it at all. Until suddenly it's not occurring anymore.
It's still not studied a great deal, for the simple reason that no one stands to make a great deal of money out of proving that children - or any of us - need to be out in nature. However, the studies that are being done show that free play in natural settings not only develops physical muscles, it also develops creativity. Free time in nature helps children deal with stress and helps them learn self sufficiency. Perhaps most important of all, it grounds them to the natural world in a deeply satisfying way that serves to nurture them throughout their lives.
While they may learn facts and interesting information, often about large animals halfway around the world, watching nature on TV is ultimately alienating if it is your primary exposure to the natural world. It sets nature off as "other". Watching a tree's limbs wave on a screen is very different from being up in that same tree, hearing the wind rustle the leaves around you, feeling it ruffle your hair while the branch below you sways as you look out over the surrounding landscape from your hideout deep in the middle of that tree canopy.
Louv has all sorts of data from various studies to back up his concern and his hypothesis, but those of us who have been lucky enough to experience this free exposure to nature in our childhoods can viscerally sense the loss to children who are unable to have these same sorts of experiences.
One other point that I think is very important to make.... It's tempting to point the finger at TV and other electronic devices as the culprits, or even to vilify the children themselves for being too lazy to get up off the couch or floor and go outside, but the problems are much more multi-faceted than that. Where are the children supposed to go play if they do go outside? Our yards are sterile and there is almost no open space left free around our cities. Our litiginous society makes us scared to let other people's children play on our property, and our overblown fear of strangers kidnapping our children makes us afraid to let them out of our sight. We've become dangerously scared of "germs" and "bugs", to the point where we're willing to poison ourselves in a vain attempt to delete natural bacteria, insect and spider populations from our lives. We're even scared to let our children get dirty because "people" might think we're bad parents!
We live in a free country, but we're caging ourselves and our children in a vain attempt to make life "safe" and we're impoverishing ourselves and them in the process. (Of course, that opens many discussion areas beyond this, but I'll save those for another time.)
Even if you can't take the time to pick up Louv's book and read it, I urge you to look around you with the thought of where you would play if you were a child. I think a connection to the wild ultimately makes each of us a little more human.