Leave No Child Inside: Before ‘nature deficit disorder’

The Four Rivers Environmental Coalition, in concert with the national Leave No Child Inside campaign, is committed to ensuring the children of this region will grow up with a strong connection to nature, and, as a result, be healthier and motivated to become its caring stewards. This column is one of a bi-weekly series contributed by Four Rivers Environmental Coalition members to raise public awareness of the importance of access to nature for healthy childhood development, and to encourage families to explore our member organizations’ wondrous places and programs, such as camping, learning projects, and programs for schoolchildren. Visit www.fourriver.org.

By Don Miller

Education Director, Severson Dells Nature Center

There are no new ideas, only recycled, repackaged, and remarketed ones.

Richard Louv, author of Last Child In the Woods: Saving Our Children From Nature Deficit Disorder, might agree to that statement, but would add good timing helps those ideas get noticed.

Contemporary research is demonstrating that participating in outdoor activities has a positive effect on the mental, emotional, spiritual and social domains in young people. In his book, which many are singing deserving praises for, he gives credit to others before him who set the tone for his words.

I would like to mention three authors who laid some of that groundwork, all who have visited Severson Dells Nature Center in recent years. These writers each wrote an essay in the mid-1990s stating the same message that Louv has made recently that has caught fire. That statement is that spending time in the outdoors gives one a healthier life, both physically and mentally, and gives meaning to one’s life as well as sense of place for their community.

In 1993, Robert Michael Pyle wrote a book called The Thunder Tree. There is an essay in the book he titled “The Extinction of Experience.” Your first homework is to read the entire essay, but here are the crib notes.

Pyle writes that children and adults who don’t take the time to get routinely outdoors will most likely never connect to the natural world around them. This has catastrophic results; to know a place is to care for a place. People who care about things protect them.

Pyle says, “What is the extinction of the condor to a child who has never known a wren?” He is an advocate not only for protection of wilderness areas, but for the vacant lots in cities. He exclaims, “What is less vacant then a vacant lot?” The essay is beautifully written about Pyle as a boy and the “ditch” he and friends would play in and make their discoveries that forever changed his life.

In 1994, Gary Paul Nabhan and Stephen Trimble wrote a book titled The Geography of Childhood: Why Children Need Wild Places. The authors collaborate to remember their own childhood and the importance of being able to play outside. They witness their own children and how they react to outdoor experiences.

The book, much like Louv’s, draws from a variety of fields: child psychology, education, ethnography and evolutionary biology. They echo what Pyle statedm, that kids have less need for a large wilderness area, but savor a garden, gully or field to explore.

Much of our formal education is spent “dissecting, looking at books, watching films or TV,” and not outdoors making hands-on discoveries and observations. Nabhan tells of being with Caroline Wilson on a hike revisiting her childhood “playground” in the Canyonlands National Park of Utah. “I remember these rocks!” Caroline whispered, somewhat astonished by the sudden upwelling of tears in her eyes. “They are as familiar to me as the freckles on my arm…” How many of us know a place that well? Nabhan and Trimble bounce back and forth with essays that pull us into their landscape and the importance of outdoor experiences.

In 1995, Kathleen Dean Moore wrote in her first of many great books an essay called “Winter Creek.” In that essay, she explores the meaning of the phrase “poking around.”

Although “poking around” can be done in many places such as a library, antique store and such, Moore speaks of the value of it taking place outdoors. Children are the best at “poking around,” but adults can—and should—enjoy it, too. Usually when people poke around, they end up with burs stuck on them, wet feet, rocks in their pockets, or mud caked where one doesn’t want mud caked.

Moore suggests: “Like most pleasurable activities, ‘poking around’ has its solemn enemies. Thus, parents call their children slowpokes and tell them to quit poking around or they will be left behind. Grownups who poke around are dismissed as childlike; although how that can be an insult is beyond my comprehension.”

“Poking around” is a good art to get involved in. I suggest you read Moore’s essay in Riverwalking: Reflections on Moving Water, and get “poking around” soon.

There are many who have put down words and thoughts previous to the above-mentioned authors. Anna Botsford Comstock and Rachel Carson, to name just two, but Moore, Pyle, Trimble and Nabhan are great starting spots. But still, the best read is nature itself—get out there and poke around.

Don Miller is education director at Severson Dells Nature Center, 8786 Montague Road, Rockford. For more about Severson Dells, visit seversondells.com.

From the September 26-29, 2009 issue

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