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Back to Nature

July 20, 2011

I was recently walking around in a neighborhood park, and I saw birds splashing in a pool of water.  I watched a pair of squirrels play tag up and down a large oak tree, and I admired an elderly couple walking hand-in-hand in a flower garden.  Then, I heard a car door slam and my eyes beheld children entering the park hardly lifting their gaze from their electronic devices as debris flew from their car.  As I raced to retrieve and dispose of the litter, my mind quickly volunteered pieces of itself to give to them and their parents.  How could this world’s future generation be so oblivious to the natural environment?  And especially when global climate issues are so prevalent?

According to Richard Louv, author of Last Child in the Woods, children of the last thirty years have become increasingly detached from nature leading to dreadful consequences in their physical, spiritual, and emotional development.  In his book, he coins the term Nature Deficit Disorder to describe what happens when children are disconnected to nature and claims that this disconnection can be linked to childhood obesity, attention disorders, and depression.  With the environmental conscientiousness on the rise, many societal changes must occur to ensure that today’s children are equipped to handle potentially serious, environmental changes.

From listening to stories of older generations about their childhood, I get jealous as I hear of their rather simplistic, yet revered, view of the environment.  My grandparents could hardly recall any talk of global warming or changes in the ozone layer, but they could very explicitly describe to me every nook and cranny of their surrounding woods.  They could spend hours roaming around unattended, learning hands-on what the natural world held and its various processes.  By reflecting on my own childhood and observing younger generations, this kind of adventure is nearly unheard of, or even dangerous, to ponder.

Believe me, I had my fair share of climbing trees, playing treasure hunt in the woods, and making mud pies for my brother and our cow-friends.  However, I also recall the warnings, “Get down from there; you’ll break your neck!”, “Don’t touch that! Something may come out and bite you!”, and, “You just HAD to go off and stain another pair of clothes with that dirt.”  In all the stories from my elders, I never heard any of these paranoia statements, and many of these individuals have 80+ years and are still living strong.

I think our culture’s media has played an extreme role in shaping this frame of thinking.  Louv says that the media coupled with paranoid parents have literally “scared children straight out of the woods and fields.”  Despite the fact that child abductions and related crimes have decreased in recent times, nearly every news cast proclaims devastating stories to viewers.  For example, the news stations across the U.S. have been relaying every detail of the Casey Anthony trial.  It is extremely unfortunate that
a toddler lost her life, and I am by no means dismissing it, but did the entire nation need weeks of round-the-clock updates of the trial?  I think not.  Yes, parents now have even more awareness about the safety of their children, but they also have increased fear that translates to less unsupervised, free-time for kids to explore the nature around them.

Free-time here means unstructured, maybe even somewhat uncivilized, time to play, explore, and discover.  Now it seems almost as if free-time has become something to be ashamed of in the American society.  True, pleasurable free-time has become something that must be earned, instead of something unalienable, and I sometimes feel insecure about whether I deserve this time for myself.  Advertisements work to convince me that I have earned, therefore deserve, something special.  You’re Worth It!  You Deserve a Break!  This is Just What You Need! I, being the gullible consumer, give into this proposed “once in a blue moon” event, and relax in the grass to enjoy the little bits of nature during my culturally, “deserved” free-time.  And remorse begins to set, heightened by the reactions of my fellow park visitors.  A runner’s glare whose expression labels me as a lazy bum.  A slow pass by a city police car that nearly questions my innocent intentions.  A woman’s inquiry asking if I was having family or “men” problems.  And all of these because I simply sat on the ground to enjoy my worthwhile time?  I may be “worth it,” but the feelings that it were not.  Seriously, though, I admit that I have struggled with this concept of free-time.  I could do a homework assignment on it and maybe even write a lengthy report about maximizing its efficiency, but I could not actually do it easily.  It was only when I temporarily removed myself from my technological and my cultural “should do” world, and immersed myself into nature that I began to truly experience my natural-born right: free-time; my imagination blossomed and I began to see animal shapes in the clouds instead of the shameful stares.

Again, I relate this struggle to how recent generations are being secluded from the freedom to roam and explore nature.  I hear of parents who schedule their child’s day to each minute.  Mondays: soccer, Tuesdays: etiquette lessons, Wednesday: neighborhood child social, etc.  Without unstructured time, the imagination is shot; it causes perplexity.  I can trace this change in my recollections of summer camps.  My earliest camp was filled with fireside story-telling and my last camp consisted of my epic failure at multiple games of pop culture trivia, barely imaginative.  Neither weekly soccer nor summer camps include the healthy time in nature that families need to learn and enjoy in the midst it.  And even though children are scheduled to be active, the obesity epidemic has only increased.  This rigidity causes children to be active only when their allotted time allows.

Louv addresses that today’s generation worry about saving the rainforest, but hardly any of them have ever seen a forest floor.  I believe this can be combatted by integrating the nature-related curriculum with hands-on learning, like what many schools in the U.S. are beginning.  Also, family’s can participate in nature activities; endless opportunities wait in parks, reserves, and even backyards.  I’ve come to enjoy geocaching, an adult and family-safe treasure hunt, which combines both the technological world via GPS and the environment, for example.  Even vacations can branch outside of the animated “small world” and into a natural, luxurious experience of a whole new world of exploration.

If this planet is to support later generations of life, today’s generation needs to be granted the freedom to learn about nature actively.  Daily dirt and grass smudges will be the new Vogue, the current street smart will become the sustainable, tree smart, and the society will produce new generations capable, creative, and experienced to better handle future global changes.

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