Kids and nature deficit

Do you remember playing outdoors as a child?  I remember climbing a five-trunked maple tree, playing house in the shady gaps of a honeysuckle thicket, tasting the nectar of columbine flowers, stripping the seeds from plantain stems, for that satisfying prickle along the fingers.

If you have kids, I hope they’re getting to have their own outdoor explorations. A growing number of experts (see www.childrenandnature.org) have observed that children these days spend much less time out in the natural world than any previous generation, and that this lack may be unhealthy. Studies show that problems such as obesity, depression, and Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD) improve when kids are exposed to natural environments.

The problem was dubbed Nature Deficit Disorder and described in detail by Richard Louv in his book Last Child in the Woods (Workman Publishing Company, 2005). He blames such influences as the loss of green space, a cultural obsession with safety, educational pressures, and the easy fascination of TV, computers, and video games. Louv’s research shows that contemporary environmentalists had childhoods involving plenty of time exploring nature, either alone or with a mentor who modeled a respect and appreciation for the wild. Today’s efforts to deliver nature to children tend to be overly structured and sanitized, with national parks resembling theme parks and children forbidden to leave manicured paths to play in the woods. Louv wonders, where will the next generation of protectors of the environment come from without youthful experiences to inspire them?

In one study, researchers examined stress levels of children in an area of upstate New York. They correlated the quantity of green space near the children’s homes with their scores on psychological tests and with questionnaires on their behavior filled out by parents. The results showed that children with ready access to nature had more success at handling the stress in their lives.

Other research found that children diagnosed with ADHD showed a reduction in symptoms after a guided walk through a park as compared with walks through a downtown area and a neighborhood.

The 2008 edition of Last Child in the Woods lists 100 suggestions for connecting kids and nature. For example: buy a truckload of dirt to play in; go for a family walk when the moon is full; buy field guides; plant a butterfly garden; study animal tracking. Even here in the Catskills, where such opportunities are abundant, kids may be mesmerized by electronic devices and require a parental push to get outside, or even gentle guidance to discover the details they tend to overlook, which may provide unexpected and nourishing enchantment.

Since the first edition Louv’s book was published, it has sparked the creation of a Children and Nature Network (see www.childrenandnature.org), which promotes public awareness, organizes community events, and pushes for legislation. Check it out!

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