It wasn’t that long ago that children and the outdoors were synonymous. Where there were woods there would be kids climbing the trees and swinging from the vines. At the edges of creeks and streams kids would be wading and building dams, catching polliwogs (that’s tadpoles to some) and getting their shoes soaking wet. Kids were coming home with muddy clothes clutching a wriggling snake or an occupied turtle shell. Why is now so different?
The reasons are all around. Kids get mixed messages from their parents, from society, and from the media. Parents tell children they need to play outside more but don’t want the kids to get out of sight. These are the same parents that probably left their houses in the morning to play and didn’t see their own parents again until dinner time.
Television shows for kids tell them that playing outside is healthy and fun. That same television shows a Public Service Announcement that proclaims “Play outside for an hour a day”. Just an hour? Oh yeah, then the kids can come back and watch more television. The only way that children will love nature enough to really want to save the wild places that are left is if they are shown how to enjoy them.
Just saying “they are shown how to enjoy them” is shocking to me. Like most of my generation the outdoors was a refuge. It was a playground without restrictions. Where there was trees, a creek, a pond or a grassy hillside there was endless entertainment and adventure. Now it seems kids have lost what should be a natural connection with the wild places.
Here is the really frightening thought. Is it too late to redevelop the nature/child connection? Forcing children to play outside, to go hiking, or to summer camp can more easily cause resentment instead of connection.
I truly believe it can we just have to come at it from a contemporary perspective and with a different goal in mind. To use a Buddhist term; we must speak about it with the current worldview of young people in mind. This is a generation that has been continually exposed to what are the dangers of the world, what is being lost, and consumerism. Their connection with nature might need to be renewed through environmentalism, through “going green” programs, and involvement in nature conservancy programs. It may be too late for this generation to learn to “play” in the woods. So let it skip this generation and let them send their kids out to play in the wild lands they helped save when they were children and worked for as adults.
Richard Louv wrote Last Child in the Woods, Saving Our Children from Nature-Deficit Disorder and gave the phenomenon a label. He quotes a 4th grader from San Diego, CA, “I like to play indoors better ’cause that’s where all the electrical outlets are.” At first reading it seems cute and funny. Read it again and one can’t help but cringe.
We lived out in the country awhile ago. The house was at the end of gravel road. All around was thick Missouri woods that bordered a State Parks. My daughter loved to hike the woods and explore the streams – as long as I was with her. The first time she went out alone she came back twenty minutes later and asked, “What can I do out there?”
Let’s take the pragmatic approach and apply creative redescription to the idea of Nature-Deficit Disorder. Think of it as a generational malady that afflicts this generation and work to help the next one regain this crucial link to their world.