Photo courtesy of Flickr:Otto Phokus
Since Dawn Publications’ inception, we have known intuitively that nature provides us with positive life-shaping experiences, vital for children. But it’s especially nice to see a well-written testament to the value of nature in kids’ lives. Last Child in the Woods: Saving Our Children From Nature-Deficit Disorder by journalist Richard Louv (2005) combines anecdotes with striking new research. The author spent 10 years traveling around the country talking to parents and children, college students, teachers, scientists, religious leaders, child-development researchers, and environmentalists.
The bad news is the prevalence of “nature-deficit disorder,” epitomized by the fourth grader who said: “I like to play indoors ’cause that’s where all the outlets are.” This “disorder” is not a scientific term but one coined by Louv to suggest a range of issues such as attention difficulties, higher rates of obesity, and diminished use of the senses.
The good news is that many studies show the powerful healing force of nature. A 2002 study (150 schools in 16 states) from the State Education and Environmental Roundtable found that “environment-based education produces student gains in social studies, science, language arts, and math; improves standardized test scores and grade-point averages; and develops skills in problem-solving, critical thinking, and decision making.”
Louv cites “a growing body of research [that] links our mental, physical and spiritual health directly to our association with nature.” Several of these studies suggest that exposing children to nature can even be a powerful form of therapy. Consider these findings:
- Over 100 studies confirm that spending time in nature significantly reduces stress. The “fascination factor” relieves fatigue and improves the capacity to pay attention. In general, closeness with nature boosts a child’s attention span. Nature therapy reduces the symptims of ADHD.
- Nature is “sublime, harsh, fragile, and beautiful” — settings that are essential for healthy child development because they stimulate all the senses and the imagination, and build a platform for sustained intellectual development.
In short, “a growing body of evidence recommends (that) ‘contact with nature is as important as good nutrition and adequate sleep’.”
Many of us remember the magnificent experience of climbing 15 feet– or was it a hundred? — into that old tree. You remember the visit to your grandmother’s farm, how you got lost in the cornfield! Or spied on the frogs in the nearby pond — and caught one! You remember your special place in a hedge, a garden, a tree house. These moments add up to who you are today.
But the grandparents of today have condos, not farms. Eighty-percent of Americans live in urban areas. Treehouses are strictly forbidden under the rules of the gated community. In our new, denatured world of “electronic detachment,” children are cloistered within well wired cocoons of instant messaging, the world wide web, and cable TV. Even in small towns and green suburbia, children are kept on a tight leash by parents fearful of traffic, sexual predators, or disease-carrying ticks. (Louv carefully distinguishes various media frenzies from the much less fearful reality.)
There are solutions. Even more important than the wilderness is “near-by nature” – small backyards, local parks, or neighborhood woods. Louv ends his book with futuristic and hopeful scenarios: a vast network of bike paths, green cities, and “zoopolises” that encourage wildlife by providing natural habitats. But the first step is to develop a broad-based awareness of nature necessity.
“Nature presents the young with something so much greater than they are; it offers an environment where they can easily contemplate infinity and eternity.” But, as Louv so eloquently and urgently shows, our mothers were right when they told us, day after day, “Go out and play.”