growing up with nature

This post is one that has been whirring around in my mind for a few weeks. Actually, it all started when I was watching a little show with Blythe. Really, I suppose it started five or six years ago when my dad let me borrow a book. But actually it started when, in college, I began getting in classrooms and observing students. But really, if I look at the broad picture, it started in my childhood backyard.

Let me paint a picture:
When I was growing up, my backyard, my neighborhood, the expanses of trees and creeks beyond-- they were really just an extension of our home. My sister and I rarely watched television as children. We thought we were SO deprived because we didn't have a gaming system  Nintendo or Sega [let's be honest, there weren't any others]. We could identify birds and tell you the names of trees by the shape of their leaves. We had our fair share of poison ivy and fights with stinging nettle. We went fishing and hunting and picked up acorns and walnuts for extra cash. By the end of a summer's day, I was covered in dirt that had mingled with my sweat.

Eventually I became a high schooler. Other obligations, like sports and homework, took more time from me but I still, on occasion, would spray on bug repellent and march all over our property, noticing raccoon tracks and matted grass where a deer had bedded the previous night.

When I went to college, I thought I might waste away in the library basement writing papers, but sometimes would take an opportunity to sneak out in the late hours of an autumn night for a bonfire with new friends, or unload a group of unsuspecting "city kids" into the woods to take them on their first "snipe hunting" adventure. When I became a Resident Assistant, the Resident Life directors all saw the value that the outdoors provided in way of building community and resolve among us trainees, and I was right at home in the tents and canoes, surrounded by campfires and crickets.

Eventually my degree was coming to a close and I ended up in a lot of classrooms, and eventually was facing a classroom full of high school seniors just a few years younger than me. And that is when I began to see it: the ever-widening gap between kids/teens and nature. I didn't get a cell phone until I went to college and a lot of college students didn't have a personal computer at their disposal. Facebook didn't exist. Nobody was talking about the latest apps. If someone had Tivo it was rare. I still remember putting a sticky note on the door to the shared TV room in my dorm to reserve Thursday nights at 8 o'clock so a group of us could watch Alias. I doubt this happens anymore, as everyone lays in their own bed and watches TV shows on Netflix [which also was not around when I was in college].

So what am I trying to say?

Well, when I moved to Louisville right after college and began teaching even younger kids, the gap seemed even bigger, and the electronics even more abundant. And then my dad gave me a book to read: Last Child in the Woods: Saving our Children from Nature-Deficit Disorder, by Richard Louv. I didn't even need to open it. The title made perfect sense to me, and I could clearly see that I was one of the lucky ones; I could see that my generation just barely snuck through. I felt like we really were the last children in the woods.

The book is really just what it sounds like: heavily researched and with astonishing evidence, Louv shows the reader how out of touch with the natural world "kids today" are. But he goes further and he links the lack of exposure to nature, coupled with the heavily "wired" generation, with so many trends we see in our kids today: rises in obesity, Attention Deficit Disorder, and depression. [Yes, I know many other things can cause any of these as well, but hang with me.]

I opened the book and saw the quote by a fourth grader Louv included as a preface to his book: I like to play indoors better 'cause that's where all the electrical outlets are. I dug in. Though I didn't read it all, and skimmed a lot because it was not the light "summer reading" I was necessarily looking forward to, I was intrigued by so many facts Louv exposed that I knew, just from my own experiences and observations, had to be true:
-By the 1990s the radius around the home where children were allowed to roam on their own had shrunk to a ninth of what it had been in 1970. 
-Today, average 8 year olds can identify cartoon characters better than they can native species, such as beetles and oak trees in their own communities. 
- The number of prescriptions for antidepressants to children has doubled in the last five years [book was published in 2005], and recent studies show too much computer time is not good for the developing mind. 

Louv is bold in his accusations of what "nature deficit" can cause, but he claims that it can damage children and eventually shape adults, families, and communities. He gives solutions though, and shows how being in touch with nature is essential for a healthy childhood development on many levels. He even talks about how this shift in lifestyle for children dramatically improves test scores, grade point averages, and not to mention kids critical thinking skills. And obviously creativity. We are so distracted now. We may appreciate nature, but it is while we are on the phone or we have headphones in.

Besides the competition technology provides though, other shifts have occurred: we fear strangers and traffic and viruses and rusty nails and …well, what hasn't media told us to fear in what is beyond our front door? Not to mention there is just less nature now. However, the author really gives some great ideas, and motivation, for parents who want to make sure their kids are not the "last child[ren] in the woods." [And here is my fair warning: some of it got a little "tree-huggy" for me, but overall it was good.]

I thought of this book occasionally after reading it so many summers ago-- when students would write, not about what they were discovering in the trees or dirt, but rather about what new video games they were playing. But what really made me think of this book again? I became a parent.

Blythe is two. She already asks for my phone, on which I have held out in downloading games for her, and I know she watches entirely too much TV. This recently has surfaced more and more. I always tried to limit it-- but then I was hugely pregnant. And then I had kidney stones. And then I had a newborn. And it seemed that her time in front of the TV just kept increasing. And part of me still defends that: trust me, it is okay sometimes to just survive and if it means plunking your toddler in front of the tube for a little bit so you can BREATHE! or shower, or eat, or feed an infant, or clip your fingernails, or brush your teeth… then by all means, DO IT! Your sanity will thank you.

But you know what I was discovering? The MORE TV Blythe was watching, the less she was entertained by it. And the MORE TV Blythe watched, the less she was napping and sleeping. And the MORE TV I let Blythe watch to keep her occupied? The LESS she was occupied. Her imaginative play began to decrease: she wanted to be ENTERTAINED. And this was after just a couple weeks of increased TV time.

Isn't this how we all feel after being inside too long? 
[The one of Caroline CRACKS ME up and I keep it just in case I need a laugh]

And then it occurred to me, the irony of all ironies, that so many of the little shows she would watch had catch phrases or songs about getting OUTSIDE! One of her favorites is Bubble Guppies. We don't have cable, so my parents have a few DVR-ed for her at their house. The one song that is on every episode: "Everybody up! Let's go, let's go! Everybody outside, everybody!" And yet there we were, sitting inside while the daylight burned on all around us.

And as we are beginning to figure out our days with Becks a little more, and my energy is coming back, and the days are getting warmer and longer, I am trying harder and harder to show Blythe [and Becks too, though she doesn't seem to pay attention much, right now ;)], the beauty of being outside-- the beauty of exploring and dirt and trees and wind on your face and humidity licking at your neck. I'm trying to get her unplugged and outside so that she looks back on the adventures of her childhood like I look back on mine. And the more of an effort I've put into this, the more I've seen her creativity and imagination, and even her attention span, growing. It's true!

And even though, as ridiculous as it sounds, some days it is hard to take the ten steps to get out the door, it is always so worth it. For all of us.

A child said What is the grass? fetching
it to me with full hands;
How could I answer the child? I do not 
know what it is any more than he. 
- Walt Whitman

And the other day when my dad cut a path down to the creek and asked if he could take Blythe? I was so excited for her. I couldn't wait for her to get her toes wet and get sand stuck on her ankles. I wanted her to walk with the minnows in the clear flowing water and swat a few mosquitos. I wanted her to be pinked by the sun, and get rosy cheeked from the exertion of it all. I wanted her to discover this great big, beautiful thing that is at our fingertips everyday.

Once she and her papa got down to the creek, Becks and I observed from a bridge above. I shouted a hello at her, barely able to break her attention from the sandy bottom. She squinted up at me, a pink ball cap sitting askew on her sweaty head, and said, "Come, Mama. Come down to my creek." Her creek.

Yes, Blythe. Nature is yours. Embrace it.

One of my favorite pictures. Blythe after helping out at the ball field...
…and her clothes were never the same again...

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Mary Iedema said...

Again, your writing ability delights me. It is wonderful that something that could be said in 20 words, can be said in 100 words much more beautifully.

Hannah said...

I love everything about this. I think there is truth in what you said about our generation being the last to really grow up outside. I lived outside while growing up, we played all day every day outside. We didn't have tv or games to play like kids do these days [and oh, that makes me sound so old...]. But I loved every bit of running around, riding bikes, playing in the woods, climbing mountains... all of it. It was just how a childhood should be. I am sure your girls will have the same love of being outside because they have you and other wonderful family to show them the wonderful of being outside. I hope Emerson will love it just as much too.

And goodness sakes, those pictures of Blythe. I die. Especially that one of her in the snow suit. She is adorable!!

Enjoy your sunshine today :)