One evening when my boys were younger, Matthew, then ten, looked at me from across a restauranttable and said quite seriously, “Dad, how come it was more fun when you were a kid?”I asked what he meant. “Well, you’re always talking about your woods and tree houses, and how youused to ride that horse down near the swamp.”
At first, I thought he was irritated with me. I had, in fact, been telling him what it was like to use stringand pieces of liver to catch crawdads in a creek, something I’d be hard-pressed to find a child doingthese days. Like many parents, I do tend to romanticize my own childhood—and, I fear, too readilydiscount my children’s experiences of play and adventure. But my son was serious; he felt he hadmissed out on something important.
He was right. Americans around my age, baby boomers or older, enjoyed a kind of free, natural playthat seems, in the era of kid pagers, instant messaging, and Nintendo, like a quaint artifact.Withinthe space of a few decades, the way children understand and experience nature has changedradically. The polarity of the relationship has reversed. Today, kids are aware of the global threats tothe environment—but their physical contact, their intimacy with nature, is fading. That’s exactly theopposite of how it was when I was a child.
As a boy, I was unaware that my woods were ecologically connected with any other forests. Nobodyin the 1950s talked about acid rain or holes in the ozone layer or global warming. But I knew mywoods and my fields; I knew every bend in the creek and dip in the beaten dirt paths. I wanderedthose woods even in my dreams. A kid today can likely tell you about the Amazon rain forest—butnot about the last time he or she explored the woods in solitude, or lay in a field listening to the windand watching the clouds move.The shift in our relationship to the natural world is startling, even in settings that one would assumeare devoted to nature. Not that long ago, summer camp was a place where you camped, hikedin the woods, learned about plants and animals, or told firelight stories about ghosts or mountainlions. As likely as not today, “summer camp” is a weight-loss camp, or a computer camp. For a newgeneration, nature is more abstraction than reality. Increasingly, nature is something to watch, toconsume, to wear—to ignore. A recent television ad depicts a four-wheel-drive SUV racing along abreathtakingly beautiful mountain stream—while in the backseat two children watch a movie on aflip-down video screen, oblivious to the landscape and water beyond the windows.
Our society is teaching young people to avoid direct experience in nature. That lesson is deliveredin schools, families, even organizations devoted to the outdoors, and codified into the legal andregulatory structures of many of our communities. Our institutions, urban/suburban design, andcultural attitudes unconsciously associate nature with doom—while disassociating the outdoors fromjoy and solitude.
Yet, at the very moment that the bond is breaking between the young and the natural world, agrowing body of research links our mental, physical, and spiritual health directly to our association withnature—in positive ways. Several of these studies suggest that thoughtful exposure of youngsters tonature can even be a powerful form of therapy for attention-deficit disorders and other maladies.Reducing that deficit—healing the broken bond between our young and nature—is in our self-interest,not only because aesthetics or justice demands it, but also because our mental, physical, andspiritual health depends upon it. The health of the earth is at stake as well. How the young respondto nature, and how they raise their own children, will shape the configurations and conditions of ourcities, homes—our daily lives.
Full text can be found here: http://richardlouv.com/books/last-child/excerpt/
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