It turns out that my parents were right- staying outside for hours at a time was a good for me! Yesterday I read an article in USA Weekend about “nature-deficit disorder”, a recently documented condition explained in Richard Louv’s book, Last Child in the Woods: Saving Our Children from Nature-Deficit Disorder. “He concludes that the absence of nature in many children’s lives is key when it comes to problems they increasingly face, such as obesity, attention disorders, depression and stress. Louv posits that exposure to nature can help prevent these ills and enhance our children’s academic and emotional growth.”
I suppose I hadn’t thought much about this problem since I live in a rural area where children are outside more than their city counterparts. However, I usually have at least a couple of students who seldom, if ever, play outside for extended periods of unstructured time. I suppose safety is the big concern these days. Parents don’t want to send their children outside for unsupervised play, and they are too busy to join them. Another concern is germs. Parents don’t want their children playing with dirt and bugs and sticks and other dirty things. Better to be inside where everything is washed down with anti-bacterial soap. Better to have them in the house playing video games or watching television where it is safe. Turns out that safety is only an illusion. They may be safe from physical harm, but their brains and bodies are turning to mush.
I guess my parents didn’t think much about safety. They must have figured I was smart enough to take care of myself most of the time. I remember spending hours outside- exploring the woods or walking through the fields, digging in the dirt, catching bugs, wading in ditches, watching birds, chasing squirrels, and daydreaming. I could sit in a tree or lie in the grass for hours just thinking and dreaming and creating stories in my head.
Sometimes I had playmates. My brothers were old enough to play army or cowboys and Indians, but sometimes those games just seemed too limiting. I usually left them and went off on my own. When we visited Oklahoma I played in the woods with my cousins. In warm weather we swung from a rope and dropped into the pond, or just wandered through the woods in search of critters.
When we lived in the city I had to make do with crawling under a bush, but I always found a way to be outside. We went to the park on Sunday afternoons and fed the ducks. We ate a picnic lunch and read the paper and just relaxed. My parents seemed to know instinctively that even though we were poor life couldn’t just revolve around work and school.
Oh, there were times when things went bad. I remember playing with a group of neighborhood kids who put me down in a empty canal, told me the water was going to be turned on any minute, and left me screaming. I don’t know if she heard me or some kid told her, but Mom came to rescue me after a while. I also remember a couple of close encounters with snakes. I fell once and hurt my ankle. I almost got lost when my cousins got too far ahead of me in the woods. But I survived. And it turns out I probably have a more creative mind and relaxed personality because of my time outside.
I thought it was interesting to note that the author says organized sports don’t fulfill the same function. Many children spend more time watching their teammates than actually participating in their game. Also they are not free to think or act freely. Perhaps that is the real key. Time outside needs to be unstructured. “The Nature Conservancy found that kids under 13 now take part in freestyle play outdoors for only a half-hour a week.” Half an hour a week??? Good grief! I would have gone crazy! Even now, I think that is why I have a garden. It’s the adult equivalent of “playing outside”.
So, even if you have doubts about the scientific accuracy of “nature-deficit disorder” (and I’m not a big fan of labeling) it is obvious that all of us are spending more time indoors than our ancestors. Something to think about. So go outside and think about it.