When my husband and I were dating and newly married, we made a lot of camping trips to the national parks near our home. I clearly remember one day, while hiking in the Narrows we passed a family hiking, the husband with a toddler in a backpack carrier. We looked and each other and said we’d be that family.
Then we had kids.
Reality didn’t quite match up with our intentions. We’ve made some trips to that same park as a family, but they’ve been fewer and farther between. I could list our excuses, but almost every one of them is addressed in Section 3 of Richard Louv’s book, Last Child in the Woods: Saving Our Children From Nature-Deficit Disorder.
I’m like the 85% of moms in the study recently conducted by Busch Gardens, who said they worry their kids aren’t getting enough unstructured time in nature. Yet our kids still aren’t getting as much of that time as we did as kids. Why? Louv has a few theories that revolve around two key players: Fear and Time.
As parents, we worry. I’ve often claimed that I don’t get post-partum depression, I get post-partum anxiety. (And I think it hangs around for a few decades.) I’ve always been a worrier, but never as much as I am now that I am the mother of four. As parents we want to keep our children safe. And we should.
But the notion that nature is so much more dangerous than the familiarity of our homes simply doesn’t hold up. There is risk of course, but there’s risk everywhere in life. Louv points out that children face as many (if not more) dangers in their own homes. Bacteria, toxic molds, allergens, and germs are quick to make themselves at home indoors. Similarly, the brown recluse spider (more dangerous than most snakes you’d encounter on the trail) is more likely to be found indoors than out. And mosquitoes that carry the West Nile Virus don’t show much deference either way, transmitting the virus in bedrooms and backyards as easily as they do on a hike.
And as for the perception that the seclusion of the great outdoors breeds violence, Louv explains that these unfortunate incidents of violence in our national parks are quick to make the news, but are far from a crime wave. When citing a parks visitors as its population, national parks have crime rates that would make cities of a comparable size extremely envious.
Of course we have to teach kids to be aware and we have to give them the skills for staying safe. But they don’t learn that without actually having the opportunity to be out in nature. How much more dangerous is it to send an inexperienced, yet independent adult out into the wild than to mentor a young child?
I particularly liked a quote that came from a teacher in Kansas, referring to “intelligent caution” and “a balanced view of danger.” We take precautions and teach our kids to be smart and stay safe, but we can’t cripple them with overbearing caution.
The great irony of all of the fear that keeps us from sending our kids out into the wild is the fact that the overabundance of caution may put them at a greater risk than any camping trip could. In addition to the physical impact of a more sedentary lifestyle, the psychological impact of the removal of risk (in addition to the effects of the removal of nature) can be serious.
As Louv writes, “Excessive fear can transform a person and modify behavior permanently; it can change the very structure of the brain.” Much like I wrote in my post, Is There Danger in Play or More in its Absence?, the restriction of a child’s opportunity for reasonable adventure can warp the child’s perception of danger, his feelings of self-confidence, and, as Erik Erikson would postulate, prevents him from “establish(ing) a self beyond adult control”.
The other factor is time. We all claim we don’t have time to get out in nature. We don’t have time for the camping trip. Hey, we don’t even have time for a walk in the park.
“It takes time,” Louv reminds us, “—loose, unstructured dreamtime — to experience nature in a meaningful way.”
And many would have us believe we’re living in the era of the time crunch. Ironic, since we have so many time-saving devices when compared to our ancestors. With washing machines and microwaves, they’d have thought we be lounging around with all our leisure time. But as a study cited in Chapter 9 points out, between 1981 and 2003, children lost about 9 hours of discretionary time. Of course, during this time we’ve added more study time and extra-curricular activities, but children’s computer time also doubled and TV time has grown as well.
Perhaps we just need a shift in perspective.
We’ve become so busy shuttling kids from one activity to the next, all in their best interests, that we’ve pushed out nature time, because we just don’t have time for “leisure”. But Louv makes the case that time in nature isn’t just about hedonistic relaxation. It’s a human necessity.
“By taking nature experience out of the leisure column and placing it in the health column, we are more likely to take our children on that hike — more likely to, well, have fun. Such a change in outlook is crucial.”
I’m working on making that shift. For myself as well as for my kids. I have to stop thinking of nature time as “bonus time” and start thinking of it more as a necessary part of every day. I don’t skip feeding my family dinner because I was just too busy. Why would I imagine that their green time is dispensable based on our daily schedule or my mood?
So I’m working on getting my kids outdoors more in a variety of experiences. In the backyard, in the parks, on the trails, and on the camp outs. I’m reminding myself that it’s part of our daily health.
What do you do to make sure to get your family outdoors? What holds you back and how do you overcome your obstacles?
Post contains an affiliate link to the book discussed.