I am not much for AM radio. However, Red Sox baseball games are broadcast on AM radio stations, so my car radio is often tuned in during baseball season.
One afternoon this week, I started my car, with the baseball station on, and heard a talk radio host make a comment that really caught my attention. He was talking about how kids never play outside anymore. And that when he was growing up, kids spent time running around on a green thing called a "playground."
He then translated what this meant for his younger listeners. "A playground when I was a kid is a lot like what playing Nintendo DS is for you. It was a lot of fun. It was something we did every day and with our friends. But it involved a lot more moving around, and it was outside. "
Wow! To think that one would need to offer a technical definition of a playground! And then to realize that kids today are not OUTSIDE playing in the yard or at the playground, but INSIDE playing their techno-video games in front of a screen.
Video games, be they the handheld portable variety or the wired versions requiring a living room and a tv, are now a universal language of play and downtime for so many kids. And playgrounds are used for recess at school, should the child attend a school that still has a playground, or for organized practices of team sports like soccer and baseball.
When my son and his best friend go outside to kick the soccer ball around or play basketball with the hoop in the driveway, I realize the airwaves are kid-silent. It is only the laughs and conversations of the two boys I hear. There must be other kids around in the neighborhood. But are they all inside?
You can imagine my amazement as I read Richard Louv's article, "Leave No Child Inside: The Growing Movement to Reconnect Children and Nature." The very thought that children of all people have gotten so disconnected from the natural world is horrifying to me. Yet, as I thought about it more, I realized what Louv was saying was true.
"Within the space of a few decades, the way children understand and experience their neighborhoods and the natural world has changed radically. Even as children and teenagers become more aware of global threats to the environment, their physical contact, their intimacy with nature is fading . As one suburban fifth grader put it to me, in what has become the signature epigram of tthe children-and-nature movement: 'I like to play indoors betters' cause that's where all the electrical outlets are.' "
As housing developments have snatched up what once were woods and open pieces of land, fear of "stranger danger" and increasing traffic has kept kids off of the neighborhood streets, homework demands has minimized "downtime," and television and computers have become competing forces in the shrinking pie of "play" time, "urban, suburban and even rural parents" can all list the myriad reasons "why their children spend less time in nature than they did themselves."
Louv states, "In a typical week, only 6 percent of children ages nine to thirteenp lay outside on their own. Studies by the National Sporting Goods Association and by American Sports Data, a research firm, show a dramatic decline in the past decade in such outdoor activities as swimming and fishing. Even bike riding is down 31 percent since 1995. "
What are we doing to our children? In his book LAST CHILD IN THE WOODS, Louv coins the term "nature-deficit disorder." Harvard professor EO Wilson's "biophilia hypothesis" states that we as human beings are innately attracted to nature. Louv writes, "We are still hunters and gatherers, and there is something in us, which we do not fully understand, that needs an occasional immersion in nature. We do know that when people talk about the disconnect between children and nature – if they are old enough to remember a time when outdoor play was the norm – they almost always tells stories about their own childhoods: this tree house or fort, that special woods or ditch or creek or meadow. They recall those 'places of initiation, 'in the words of naturalist Bob Pyle, where they may have first sensed with awe and wonder the largeness of the world, seen and unseen. "
This gets at the very essence of being human and being interconnected, not alone. "When people share these stories, their cultural, political and religious walls come tumbling down."
While there are risks in the larger world, there are also risks "in raising children under virtual protective house arrest: threats to independent judgment and value of place, to their ability to feel awe and wonder, to their sense of stewardship for the Earth. "
There are also threats to their psychological and physiological health and wellbeing. I have worked with countless clients who as children, found safety and sanity in the natural world, finding refuge from an abusive or neglectful household. Where are today's children to go? For even adults suffering from depression, connecting with nature can be a salve for the spirit and soul. Connecting with nature is part of our self-care, and an essential way to move from isolation to connection with a larger whole. How can we teach our children this kind of emotional and spiritual self-care, if we don't ignite their innate sensibilities?
The media is full of articles on the increasing incidence of childhood obesity and its long-term potential impact on the health of the next generation. If kids can't go outside and run around or take a walk in the woods, sitting in front of the tv eating junk foods fills up their time and as my son says, "kills their brain cells."
In addition to our health and personal survival, Louv goes further about the importance of reconnecting children and nature for the survival as human beings. "The outdoor experiences of children are essential for the survival of conservation. And so the truth is that the human child in nature may be the most important indicator of future species sustainability."
Louv continues, "If society embraces something as simple as the health benefits of nature experiences for children, it may begin to re-evaluate the worth of 'the environment.' 'Instead of associating environmental health with the absence of toxic pollution, public health officials can have a more positive spin on their work: "how the environment can improve human health."
"Seen through this doorway, nature isn't a problem: it's the solution." Who can imagine being a member of "the last generation to pass on to its children the joy of playing outside in nature?"
© 2007 Linda Marks