When my husband was growing up in a new suburb of West York, PA, he and his friends habitually visited the latest construction site with their wagon. They would load long, ungainly pieces of lumber, then pull it many blocks to the edge of the development where their backyards ended and the woods began. There, they built a fort. (“That’s stealing!” my kids chime in, but I’m guessing the workers probably knew and looked the other way.) It taught them many things—about problem solving, working together and thinking creatively.
But more importantly, it got them outdoors and gave them a sense of wonder.
We did these kinds of things years ago without any thought. We captured fireflies in a jar, turned over rocks in a creek, built dams and even performed experimental acts like burning ants with a magnifying glass on the sidewalk. If we didn’t live “out” in the wilds, we managed to find a corner, an edge, a space left open, to explore and discover. We gravitated to these spots.
But there aren’t many kids outside anymore. Drive nearly anywhere in the country and you’ll find the yards are vacant of playing children.
There are many culprits: television, computers, video games, too much structured time, a fear of the bogeyman just waiting to snatch our children away and a lack of green space. (Each year, 53,000 acres of land are developed in the Chesapeake Bay Watershed. That’s one acre every 10 minutes!)
There is startling new evidence that spending time in nature is as important to children as good nutrition and adequate sleep. “To take nature and natural play away from children may be tantamount to withholding oxygen,” says author, Richard Louv, in his groundbreaking book, “Last Child in the Woods- Saving Our Children From Nature Deficit Disorder.” Louv explains that in the course of a few decades, children’s physical contact with nature has faded at an alarming rate.
New research connects the rapid increase in childhood depression and attention deficit disorders to this lack. For in nature, children make full use of their senses, are inspired to be creative, learn visualization and concentration, reduce their stress, develop a deep sense of spirit and a sense of play, become more fit and evolve into better stewards of the land.
With the planet in the mess that it is today, we can’t expect to raise environmentally conscious kids who will protect “their Mother” when they have not attached to the land nor made an intimate, personal connection with the natural world.
What to do? We, as adults must get outside with them. Relearn how to find wonder in the natural world. Take them fishing, go out for a hike, camp out, watch a meteor shower, build a campfire, identify wildflowers or skip rocks.
We need to nurture magic in our children’s lives and detach them from electronics long enough to have their imaginations kick in. (Studies show that kids are connected up to 44 hours a week!)
My husband and I raised our children, now 17 and 15, pretty much off the grid as far as mainstream child raising is concerned.
We began their young lives by hiking the entire length of the 3,100-mile Continental Divide along the Rocky Mountains. Over the course of five summers, starting at the age of 1 and 3 years old and with the help of llamas, we walked from Canada to Mexico.
I can’t even begin to expound on the gifts this extreme exposure to the natural world has given my children. Suffice it to say, time spent in the natural world will equip your child to thrive in the world so much better than any school book, computer program, television show (even the Nature Channel) or organized sport. It will leave them self-assured, happy and peaceful.
Even very small doses of nature reap tremendous benefits.
As Louv says, we need to teach our children to “see into the beating heart of the earth.” We need to instill in them a personal passion. Louv believes this is the long-distance fuel for the struggle to save what is left of the natural environment: “Passion is lifted from the earth itself by the muddy hands of the young; it travels along grass-stained sleeves to the heart.”