Families in Crisis; The Last Child in the Woods

“What is the extinction of a condor

to a child who has never seen a wren?”

Naturalist Robert Michael Pyle

We raised our sons in the Smoky Mountains of East Tennessee. They went to bed with the sound of crickets and woke up with the songs of birds.  I describe their experiences of growing up with nature in “Peek-A-Boo, I See You!” I knew that nature and its quiet presence was essential for their mental and physical well being, because of what it did for me to walk in the woods, dig in a garden, and care for the many small animals that filtered into and out of our lives. Now they are grown men. The experiences of nature in their early childhood instilled an inner peace and serenity that strengthens with each challenge they must meet as men and the woods and its small creatures created a breadth of compassion within them that is touching and disarming.

“Those who contemplate the beauty of the earth

find reserves of strength that will endure as long as life lasts.”

Rachel Carson

Millions of our children only experience asphalt and concrete. They never dig in the dirt, plant a seed, or harvest a garden. They never walk in a stream, catch salamanders, or glimpse a fish. They live without ever seeing a cow in a field, smelling a green pasture after a rain, or rescue a wounded animal. My friend Warren, who is retired from the National Parks Service, gave me a book to read, “Last Child in the Woods – Saving Our Children from Nature-Deficit Disorder”, by Richard Louv. It is a wonderful book and should be read by every parent who loves their child. I began the book on an airplane and am almost finished.

Have you ever read a book where you keep nodding in agreement with many of the passages. Mr. Louv eloquently speaks to many of my intuitive thoughts and perspectives about children and their need for nature. He created the term “Nature – Deficit Disorder”. He has nailed it! What follows are a few of his observations and the pressing need for parents to bring their children back to the earth and into the woods.

  • Some of the human costs of alienation from nature are: a diminished use of the senses, attention difficulties, and higher rates of physical and emotional illnesses. Long standing studies show a relationship between the absence of parks and open space with high crime rates, depression, and other urban maladies.
  • Biophilia, defined as the urge for humans to affiliate with other life forms, is the hypothesis of Edward O. Wilson, Harvard Scientist and Pulitzer Prize winner. His decade of research reveals how strongly and positively people respond to open, grassy landscapes, scattered stands of trees, meadows, water, winding trails, and elevated views.
  • Dr. Benjamin Rush, a signer of the American Declaration of Independence, declared, “digging in the soil has curative effects on the mentally ill.” Carl Menninger led a horticultural therapy movement in the Veterans Administration Hospital system which demonstrated the therapeutic benefits of gardening for people with chronic illnesses. Research has shown that people experience a significant decrease in blood pressure simply by watching fish in an aquarium.
  • A 10 year study by Howard Frumkin at Emory University’s School of Public Health shows gall bladder patients leaving the hospital sooner when their rooms faced a grove of trees as opposed to patients whose rooms faced a brick wall.
  • The childhood link between outdoor activity and physical activity is clear according to the Centers for Disease Control (CDC). Two out of ten children are clinically obese – four times the rate reported in the 1960’s. This obesity epidemic has coincided with the greatest increase in organized sports for children in our history. What are kids missing that soccer and Little League cannot provide? They miss the physical and emotional exercise that children enjoy when they play in nature. It is more varied and less time-bound than organized sports.
  • It is proven that “kids get depressed” when deprived of physical activity in nature. A 2003 survey in the journal of Psychiatric Services found the rate at which American children are prescribed antidepressants almost doubled in five years with the steepest increase – 66% – among preschool children. (my emphasis).
  • Cornell University Environmental Psychologists reported in 2003 that life’s stressful events appear not to cause as much psychological distress in children who live in high-nature conditions compared with children who live in low-nature conditions. The protective impact of nearby nature is strongest for the most vulnerable children – those experiencing high levels of stressful life events.
  • For a whole generation of children, direct experiences in the backyard, in the tool shed, in the fields and woods, has been replaced by indirect learning, through machines. Even though children are smart we know that something is missing as they sit in rooms and interact with machines instead of humans and the natural world.
  • Only seven states even require elementary schools to  hire certified physical education teachers. This has occurred in a country where 40% of 5 to 8 year olds suffer cardiac risk factors such as obesity.
  • Nearly 8 million children in the U.S. suffer from mental disorders, and ADHD is one of the most prevalent ones. Frances Kuo, Andrea Taylor and William Sullivan of the University of Illinois, have found green outdoor spaces foster creative play, improve children’s access to positive adult interaction and relieves the symptoms of ADD. To take nature and natural play away from children may be tantamount to withholding oxygen. (my emphasis)
  • Children’s Hospital in Seattle maintains that each hour of TV watched per day by preschoolers increases by 10% the likelihood that they will develop concentration problems and other symptoms of attention-deficit disorders by age 7.
  • Swedish researchers compared children within two daycare settings: one a quiet play area surrounded by tall buildings, with low plants and a brick path; the other a play area based on an outdoor all weather theme set in an orchard surrounded by pasture and woods, adjacent to an overgrown garden with tall trees and rocks. The ”green” day care children, who played outside every day, regardless of weather, had better motor coordination and more ability to concentrate.
  • According to the President’s Council on Physical Fitness and Sports, two-thirds of American children can’t pass a basic physical: 40% of boys and 70% of girls ages 6 to 17 can’t manage more than one pull-up; and 40% show early signs of heart and circulation problems.

”Teaching children about the natural world should be treated

as one of the most important events in their lives.”

Thomas Berry

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