altLast Child in the Woods:  Saving Our Children from Nature-Deficit Disorder, by Richard Louv (Algonquin Books, Chapel Hill, North Carolina, 2005)

I'm sorry to say I gave this book short shrift, but reading time has been scarce lately, and I must return it to the library today.  I can say, however, that it is a must-read for anyone who is not already convinced that children need, as one of life's basic necessities, plenty of time in the natural world:  hiking, camping, and learning with their families, building forts and tree houses, exploring on their own, and just being in the world of bugs and fish, stars and sand dunes, trees and caverns.  If for you this kind of exhortation is preaching to the choir, it's probably still worth at least skimming it as much as I did, if only for the shock value of learning that today's children are even more cut off from such activities than you had imagined.

I grew up on the edge of a new housing development; unlike the projects I see today, this one was slow to develop, and so we enjoyed many years of free exploration in woods and field:  climbing trees, building tree houses, following streams, skating on frozen ponds, and observing wildlife.  Nowadays such activity is often illegal.

The cumulative impact of overdevelopment, multiplying park rules...environmental regulations, building regulations, community covenants, and fear of litigation sends a chilling message to our children that their free-range play is unwelcome, that organized sports on manicured playing fields is the only officially sanctioned form of outdoor recreation.

Children's play has become boxed in, tied up, neatly organized, and often commercial.  Parks favor sports fields—often used more by adults than children—rather than space for free play.

[V]acant lots are vanishing, and the nature of suburban development is changing.  Suburban fields that might have been left open in earlier decades are being erased, replaced by denser, planned developments with manicured green areas maintained through strict covenants.

It takes time—loose, unstructured dreamtime—to experience nature in a meaningful way.  Unless parents are vigilant, such time becomes a scarce resource, not because they intend it to shrink, but because time is consumed  by multiple, invisible forces; because our culture currently places so little value on natural play.

Fear is the most potent force that prevents parents from allowing their children the freedom they themselves enjoyed when they were young.  Fear is the emotion that separates a developing child from the full, essential benefits of nature.  Fear of traffic, of crime, of stranger-danger—and of nature itself.

The author deals well with this fear, debunking some myths, and more importantly encouraging parents to help ther children avoid and handle genuine dangers, teaching them specific skills and offering "controlled risk" situations for growth.

"Every year since 1950, the number of American children gunned down has doubled."  So goes a widely quoted statement, which originated in a Children's Defense Fund report in the mid-1990s.

I like that one.  Do the math.

Some of our most prominent and revered conservationists developed their love of nature through direct childhood experiences, including such now-distained activities as hunting, fishing, and pinging seagulls with a BB gun.  Today's environmentalists predominantly trace their activism to their own unstructured play in natural habitats.  Many of these same environmentalists, however, are curiously uninterested in reaching the next generation, or providing for them the same experiences that nurtured their own love of nature—perhaps, the author suggests, because children, overpopulation, and environmental degradation are solidly linked in their minds.  If so, they—and the environment they love—may suffer the same fate as the Shakers.  Even the national parks are in danger of losing support, as fewer families visit them for camping and wilderness hiking.

As [national park] officials work to make parks safer and more accessible, the outdoors often ends up feeling more like Disneyland than wilderness.  Some kids end up disappointed that the parks aren't more Disneyesque.  When middle school students sent me their reflections on nature, one boy reported visiting Utah's Rainbow Bridge National Monument, the world's largest natural bridge, which was carved out of the cliffs above modern-day Lake Powell over thousands of years.  "The bridge was somewhat disappointing.  It was not as perfect as in the brochure," the boy wrote.  His parents enhanced the family vacation by renting Jet Skis.

Even when I was young, the Girl Scouts were far inferior to the Boy Scouts when it came to wilderness skills and experiences, but the situation for girls has gotten far worse.  Madhu Narayan and Karyl T. O'Brien are executives with the Girl Scouts in the San Diego, California area.

[The] overwhelming majority of Girl Scout programs are unconcerned with nature.  Included (along with selling cookies) are such offerings as Teaching Tolerance, Tobacco Prevention, Golf Clinic, Self-Improvement, Science Festival, EZ Defense, and Financial Literacy.  Soon, Camp CEO will bring businesswomen to a natural setting to mentor girls in job interviewing, product development, and marketing.  The divide between past and future is seen best at the Girl Scout camps in mountains east of the city:  one is billed as traditional, with open-air cabins and tents hidden in the trees; the newer camp looks like a little suburbia with street lights.  "I flipped when I learned that girls weren't allowed to climb trees at our camps," says O'Brien.  Liability is an increasing concern.  "When I was a kid, you fell down, you got up, so what; you learned to deal with consequences.  I broke this arm twice," says Narayan.  "Today, if a parent sends a kid to you without a scratch, they better come back that way."

There's more book, but no more time.

Posted by sursumcorda on Wednesday, June 10, 2009 at 2:32 pm | Edit
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I "preach" on this every year to the school parents, reminding them that childhood play (hopscotch, riding bikes, climbing trees...) is important, and that unstructured time outside is NECESSARY. Yes, our school still makes time for recess every day:)



Posted by Laurie on Wednesday, June 10, 2009 at 7:40 pm
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