Earlier this year, I attended my favorite kind of wedding: one that is an uncompromised expression of the couple’s uniqueness. The wildflower bouquet, the view of the Catskill mountains, the light blue Ball Jar centerpieces, and the overall-clad musicians all spoke to the unfussy, but beautiful simplicity of my friends and their values. At the reception, guests were seated at tables named after some of the groom’s favorite trees, including Shagbark Hickory, Hemlock, Sassafras, and Sugar Maple. The groom works as an Education Forester, which allows him to teach people how to steward their land, maintaining the health of their wooded property. He attributes his love of nature to childhood experiences with an aunt who showed him how to put a blanket under a blackberry bush and shake it, collecting bucket loads of berries. From that point on, he was obsessed with fruit picking and how bountiful and free fruit picking was. From a very young age, he was also allowed the freedom to roam free on foot and by bike in his local area, staying outside all day, exploring and discovering the world around him. These early experiences planted within Ryan a deep comfort and affection for nature and its wonders. Consequently, his career is one of protecting that thing which he loves.
With talk of global warming and the need for green energy sources being commonplace in the news, today’s youth have a superficial awareness of threats to the environment. However, the majority of these same children have very little personal experience or intimacy with nature, and it is well documented that the less children engage with nature, the less likely they are to defend and protect it over their lifetimes.
With the availability of endless options for virtual experiences, kid-centric entertainment, social networking, and the portability of powerful technology, many kids have made connecting with their favorite handheld device their chosen pastime over any number of other options, including discovering the joys of being in the natural world. A January 2010 national survey by the Kaiser Family Foundation found that with technology allowing nearly 24-hour media access to children and teens, 8-18 year-olds are spending an average of 7 hours and 38 minutes in the course of a day, or more than 53 hours a week. When factoring in the fact that much of that time is used ‘media multitasking’ (using more than one medium at a time), the total time spent consuming media content is closer to 11 hours.
There are other factors that have made being in nature an unnatural habit for our children. The removal of open, “wild” spaces due to land development, the high regulating of what activities kids can engage in when they are outside (you can’t necessarily pick berries for free, build a fort, or wade in the pond at the local park), the increase in parental fears regarding allowing their children to roam and just “go outside and play,” highly structured, extra-curricular schedules, and intense homework loads all constrict and challenge our children’s experience of discovering the planet they inhabit…its wonders, mysteries, beauty, even its dangers and nuisances.
In addition to the loss of this priceless, embodied knowledge of the natural world, the negative health impacts of children’s decreased free play time in nature are well-documented and include an increase in obesity, depression, asthma, rickets, attention deficit disorder, and decreased cardio-respiratory health.
Raising children who possess a fundamental intelligence of connecting with the physical world, both people and nature, requires conscious decision-making by parents. Within our choices regarding our children’s schedules, where we choose to live, where and how we vacation, there are many windows in which we can create opportunities for our children to know and grow the natural world. The impact of these experiences is not just immediate and personal, but reaches far into the future, determining the health of our natural world for generations to come.
As Richard Louv states in his much-acclaimed book, Last Child in the Woods, “…children…constitute the future political constituency, and their attention or vote which is ultimately based more on a foundation of personal experience than rational decision-making – is not guaranteed.”