Mind Matters — Children Naturally

I remember the early 50’s competing with cousins for the patio chaise at my aunt and uncle’s “country” home. It flipped your feet up to the sky (They sell these chairs now and call them “new”.) I remember listening to the bird songs of other than the sparrows that populated the sapling in the teeny tiny yard behind my family’s row home in town. Nature was inviting – the smells of grass, the sounds of cows pastured beyond the patio, eating roasted corn, reveling in the summer stillness. But meeting nature meant dealing with poison ivy and leeches in the lovely stream and witnessing my mother adeptly kick off a snake that coiled around her ankle as we walked my uncle’s acre. Such experiences are also important in our understanding of life Nature is not meant to be sanitized like some Disney experience.

I recently read an interview with Richard Louv in the periodical, The Sun (February, 2007), in which his book Lost Child in the Woods: Saving Our Children from Nature Deficit Disorder was the topic. Louv, I believe, correctly points out how our children are suffering mentally and physically from their lack of connection to nature. He admits that, for himself, growing up playing and exploring outside provided him with a sense of balance and some escape from family problems.

Not long ago, I was delighted to hear from a young teen client about how he hikes into the woods in his neighborhood and enjoys exploring and discovering there. His parents are divorcing and it is a stressful time for all the family, but his woods walks give him some respite and solace. This adolescent, unfortunately, is not the norm. Rouv point to how “it’s not just the spotted owl that’s endangered in nature; it’s the human child.” Perhaps we are dis-advantaging our children by over-structuring their lives and ironically giving them lots of “advantages”. Parents lead busy lives; children lead busy lives. We drive our kids to structured sports; often suburban sprawl eliminates walking to friend’s houses; the media fans the flames of fear about child abductions and letting kids be outside. (One antidote to this would be to have nature outings with your kids!)

The children of affluent areas have easy technological wonder conveniently located in their rooms—TV, computer, etc, etc. Children rather than playing outside would prefer to confine themselves to the virtual reality of their technologies. And often working parents, out of safety concerns, relegate their children to stay indoors when they are not home—that is a lot of indoor time when there is no school—the whole summer, in fact. And now schools, themselves, are eliminating recesses and physical education so they can have more “academic” time to teach “to the test”. On the other hand, Neuroscience supports Rouv’s contention that children’s development needs physical activity, especially the free-form creative experiences and adventures that can arise from being in nature. Rouv notes the “loose parts theory” of play: the more “loose” parts in the environment, the more creative the play. He reminds us that nature is chock fully of loose parts in a large environment. And it is not the virtual reality of the computer screen.

Would Huck Finn have been an adventure if Mark Twain set him before a computer screen? About the time I was reading Rouv, I also attended Splittin’ the Raft, a play at People’s Light and Theater in Malvern that integrates—and I do mean integrates—the Adventures of Huckleberry Finn with the readings of Frederick Douglas. Maybe it’s a stretch, but I couldn’t help but feel that Huck’s coming to terms with his own transformation of conscience and seeing the wrongness of slavery and the rightness of his friendship with Jim, the slave, arose in part from his (and therefore Mark Twain’s) connection with nature: Jim and Huck are on a survival journey on the Mississippi.

Read Rouv, see Splittin’ the Raft, and go outside and play with the children—remembering you once had a special place in nature where you could reflect and grow. Help your children find the same!