Winter’s grip has been firm this year. Just this week we were pelted with a heavy, wet snow – enough to snap a few soft spring branches from our trees. By day’s end, however, spring is back, the snow has melted, and the sun is out again. Where are my boys as winter turns to spring again? Huddled around an electronic game, watching a pixellated display of a virtual reality while a beautiful afternoon threatens to pass them by.
Once the game’s trance is broken (by a little of my own “magic”), they run outside to play. Ironically, by bedtime it takes as much convincing to get them inside as it did to get them outside.
Whether it’s the pull of electronics, the crunch of busy schedules, or the inconvenience of a cement-bound location, finding opportunities for children to be in nature can be a challenge if we are not consciously seeking them out. Children seem inherently wired to answer nature’s call for environmental explorers, but the static of our contrived environment often muffles that call.
In the best-selling book, Last Child in the Woods, Richard Louv discusses the integral role nature plays in the healthy development of children. In this book, which over the past five years has spawned a movement, the author introduces the term, “nature-deficit disorder”, and links it to a variety of maladies from which children commonly suffer today. From Louv’s perspective, it is no coincidence that the “denaturing of childhood” has coincided with the rise of childhood obesity, anxiety, and attention disorders.
With both anecdotal and research-based evidence, Richard Louv links time in nature with improved motor skills, concentration, clarity, peace, positive emotions, attention-span, creative play, and a reduction in symptoms associated with ADD. These effects are often shown to be unique to time in nature, not just the results of physical activity or recreation alone.
I may not be quite as “green” as some would like me to be, and I am often slow to get onboard with the “movement of the moment”, but this environmental movement is one I can get certainly get behind. As Louv writes, “The children and nature movement is fueled by this fundamental idea: the child in nature is an endangered species, and the health of children and the health of the Earth are inseparable.” Louv’s book is fascinating, and one I would recommend to everyone.
No matter what shade of “green” you are, we can all agree that our children need experiences in nature to contribute to their healthy development. Here are just a few reasons why.
A Healthy Shot in the Arm
As budget cuts and improved testing performance require more and more of the attention of public school administrators, PE and recess are falling steadily down on their list of priorities. In some schools they hardly exist at all. Concurrently, the rate of childhood obesity in the US has tripled over the last three decades.
It may take a lot of coercion to get children to do an aerobics video, but take them out in nature, and you will have a hard time keeping them from running, jumping, and climbing. Being in nature encourages the development of small and large motor skills and promotes overall physical health.
The Creative Spark
Whatever your religious beliefs, it is easy to see that being surrounded by naturally created, wondrous beauty inspires human creativity. Louv cites biographical experiences of the “famously creative”, showing the influence of nature on their creative passions. Among this list are the names of Samuel Clemens, TS Eliot, Jane Goodall, Thomas Edison, Eleanor Roosevelt, Beatrix Potter, Ansel Adams, and the list could go on.
While many indoor activities require a more passive role for children, with terms created and themes constructed, nature offers children a greater role in constructing their play as they draw from the many “loose parts” nature has to offer as props. They are drawn into an active role as they create with the Supremely created.
As Louv writes, “Nature offers a well from which many, famous or not, draw a creative sense of pattern and connection….Nature is imperfectly perfect, filled with loose parts and possibilities, with mud and dust, nettles and sky, transcendent hands-on moments and skinned knees.”
An Awakening of Stewardship
When children experience nature they feel a sense of connectedness. They are moved a bit beyond their ego-centric worlds to see the grand scheme of a larger sphere. This connection creates a bond of stewardship. You care for what you love, and you love what you know. It may be difficult to explain the environmental plights of distant scenes, but when a child discovers litter on a favorite trail or rubbish in a beloved brook, she knows personally the need for responsible stewardship.
The Natural Scientist
Experiences with nature awaken a sense of curiosity and wonder in all of us. Whether we’re exploring bugs in our backyard or the waves of the ocean on a sandy beach, we are captivated by nature’s power and uniqueness.
This wonder fuels scientific inquiry almost without effort. The main areas of preschool science (Physical Science, Life Science, and Earth Science) all find their roots in nature. A preschool child cannot truly gain a knowledge of science without an experience with nature.
When I was studying to become a teacher, I remember learning about Howard Gardner’s theory of Multiple Intelligences. His thesis was that intelligence can be embodied not only in linguistic or mathematic performance but that different people can have a myriad of intellectual strengths. As I studied this theory Gardner had defined seven intelligences. There are now as many as nine. Number eight is “Naturalistic Intelligence”.
Admittedly, more reasons could be added to this list, and you’ll find plenty more in Richard Louv’s book, but this will have to suffice for now. It’s time for me to get outside with my boys.
Top photo by jurga.
Center photo by glumus.
Bottom photo from personal collection.