When we grew up (perhaps this sounds familiar to some of you of a certain age) both of us were allowed to play without supervision. Along with a gang of friends we tussled, climbed trees, built forts, rambled. From wading through cattail marshes and playing hide and seek among towering white pines, we came to feel a deep and abiding connection to our environment. We felt as though we belonged to a place, that the green spaces in and around our homes was an integral part of where we lived.
A growing body of research in environmental education has emerged called “significant life experiences.” Researchers wanted to know what kinds of childhood experiences inspired people involved in conservation to want to protect the environment. Perhaps knowing this would help shape future environmental education curriculum. Not surprisingly, most of the respondents described rich encounters with the natural world while they were growing up. They lived on farms, they tramped through marshes, they visited cottages, they hiked, they canoed, they camped and they discovered. In short, they engaged with their natural surroundings. They felt that they were an integral part of their environment.
Even getting down to the local park and getting your children onto some playground equipment is better than staying indoors on their phone.As environmental educator Joy Palmer noted, “Childhood experiences in the outdoors is the single most important factor in developing personal concern for the environment.”
Where will tomorrow’s environmentalists come from? Who will advocate for shrinking habitat and the containment of urban sprawl? Who will speak for threatened and endangered species and for our own green spaces, when the formative experiences that make for caring stewards of our environment are removed from childhood?
In his popular book Last Child in the Woods, Richard Louv has a chilling term for those children who grow up in a world without nature. He coined the phrase “Nature Deficit Disorder” to describe some of the characteristics associated with a childhood spent indoors. He does not use the term in a medical sense. Rather, he wants us to consider what the long-term impacts might be for a child who grows up having little or no contact with the natural world.
Here are some unexpected consequences of a childhood spent indoors:
Because children are spending less time outside (and therefore are not getting regular exercise), rates of childhood obesity in North America have almost tripled over the past 20 years.
Playing in nature promotes healthy development. Swedish scientists have found that children who explore and play in natural environments tend to be less competitive and more cooperative, and demonstrate fewer incidents of “interrupted play” (when adults have to intervene to prevent fights) than those who play in areas dominated by asphalt and play structures. Researchers have discovered that playing in nature enhances creative thought, stimulates imaginative play and improves a child’s ability to concentrate during school. So, just what is stopping children from going outside? Here are a few factors:
The natural world is perceived as dangerous. Louv calls this the “Bogeyman Syndrome.” Studies have shown that the incidence of stranger abduction (stranger danger) is no more acute than it was 30 years ago, but he believes that the sheer amount of violence dramatized on the news and in TV shows and movies amplifies parents’ fears.
Liability concerns have put real pressure on school boards, city parks, daycares and other institutions to make sure children in their care stay “safe.” Ironically, keeping children inside when the weather becomes cold, cutting down bushes near a school or getting rid of an untidy section of park land may just do the opposite. They prevent real opportunities for children to participate in natural play. Louv wants us to consider the opposite point of view; he believes it is unsafe not to take children outside.
Nature has become the unknown. Not only do fewer and fewer children know the names of common plants and animals, but many people are honestly afraid that nature is out to get them. One common example is a generalized fear of spiders and insects. In reality there are just a few hazards, among them ticks, a few stinging insects, a handful of poisonous plants and snakes and the remote chance of getting lost. Serious dangers, such as an attack from a wild animal, are so rare as to be negligible.
For example, there are about three bear-related fatalities per year in North America. Compare this with 115 deaths every single day from vehicle crashes in the United States—one every 13 minutes. Every ten minutes someone gets injured falling down stairs in North America. And yet none of us thinks twice about getting into an automobile or climbing stairs. But we’re scared of camping in the wilderness!