March 20, 2009

Children & Nature

Upon reading Richard Louv's article in the March/April Orion Magazine I was struck by a truth that I have tried hard to disbelieve for the past several years:

Most kids do not play outside anymore.

Sometimes there is a larger reason why outdoor play isn't possible ... parents are fearful of the neighborhood, a family doesn't live in an environment where the outdoors are conducive to exploration (urban city apartment, extreme temperatures), or families have competing indoor activities.

Still, I believe that interaction with nature is an important part of a young persons development. It would seem that "a growing body of scientific evidence" would agree. There are certain
"strong correlations between experience in the natural world and children's ability to learn ... Stress levels, attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder, cognitive functioning ... are positively affected by time spent in nature."

" is reported that greener neighborhoods are associated with slower increases in children's body mass, regardless of residential density."
(pg.70, MArch/April Orion)

So how did we get away from the neighborhood or nature-based play? I don't really know, but here are a few of the things I think diminish our outdoor play.

1. Parental fear that their child will be abducted or harmed outside and that there isn't anything on T.V. or in video games that can permanently damage a child, besides its inside and I (as the parent) can control what my kids see and hear.

2. The continuous stream of "news" that infiltrates our lives and fills us with fear about events that rarely take place, but are over-emphasized for affect.

3. Lack of real knowledge about flowers, trees, animals, faming/gardening and water ... once again the flukes are over-publicized making parents and children afraid that flowers, trees, animals, farming/gardening and water will harm them.

4. The belief that sweaty, dirty outdoor work is bad for kids and we gladly hire adults to do work around the house that teenagers in the not so distant past once took care of for the family /community.

When I was twelve years old I started to "work" for the neighborhood association watering and weeding the signs that welcomed people into Tall Oaks IV (in Edmond, Oklahoma). I rode my bike to each of these signs and got my knees dirty in the mud, gouged my fingers open on the thorns of roses, and probably complained to my parents about how hard my job was and how much I hated working, but the independence and freedom that the $100 at the end of the month gave me was worth riding my bike uphill in August.

I am sure my mom worried about my riding around the neighborhood, but somehow it was more important for me to learn responsibility, to grow in time management skills and let her alone for two hours a week that her fear was allayed.

Really I have very little "right" to discuss this topic since I am not a mother myself, but I feel the need to start these conversations in our bookstore community. I want to see the children we all love grow up to be creative, thoughtful, healthful people. Hopefully some of you have opinions about this topic too.



Valerie said...

I teach piano for a living, and this week is Spring break. I've had the pleasure, however, of still seeing some of my students who didn't travel anywhere this week. One in particular this week made me very happy when she recounted to me the events of her day. She was yawning pretty continuously in her piano lesson and when I asked why she was so tired, she told me of all the adventures she'd had at the Nature Center that day. "I am very tired from playing very hard at the Nature Center, and I got soaking wet too, from playing with the leeches." ;) How nice. She's an 8-year-old girl. I think it's totally awesome that she spent some time on her spring break playing with leeches at the Nature Center. This week in Austin Texas has been one fantastic week for playing outside during Spring break. It's been my very happy pleasure to see children riding bikes and splashing in pools and chasing balls as I've been driving around in neighborhoods going to teach piano lessons. I've ended several lessons this week with the words, "Very good work! NOW... go play outside and enjoy your spring break!!" I agree with all that Rebekah has written. I'm also not a mother but I interact with children each week and I love seeing piano fingers moving along the keyboard with loads of dirt under the nails. :)

Carol said...

I'm not a mother either (Mothers, where are you? Probably too busy to post) so I can't comment on the possibilities of outdoor play in this day and age.

But Rebekah's post made me so glad that I grew up in times and environments where outdoor play was unquestioned. My earliest memories go back to the large backyard we had when my father taught at Greensboro Women's College in North Carolina. We lived in a huge 3 story Victorian-style home where my mom was "dorm-mother" to around 15 co-eds. Even my cautious parents gave me free range (within limits) to roam our block at at early age (around 4 or 5). We lived next door to the college's administration building -- a small dry creek bed ran behind that building and our house. All greenswards were activtely explored by me, and my little brother as he got older. We made up dramatic stories to accompany the natural landscapes.

I remember picking a violet in the backyard and announcing "flower". My mom said "That's a violet." Thus began my foray into species identification. I was so impressed that I drove my Mom crazy asking flower names for weeks.

When my Dad accepted a job at Austin College in Sherman in 1955, finding a house with a "big back yard" was a high priority. We lived largely without air conditioning (and no TV either!) back then so getting hot and sweaty was the norm for a good part of the year. We "painted" ourselves with mud and pretended to be Indians and made toys out of sticks and branches. I rode my bike all over town, but, then again, this was small-town 50's America, when no one ever locked their car or house.

And the playground equipment! The slides were taller back then and the swings swung higher. I remember one towering metal slide in a city park in Sherman. I don't know its true height (I was little after all) but I don't ever see slides like it any more. I vividly remember the first time I finally found the courage, with my dad's encouragement, to climb to the top and slide down.

So, what's my point? Just reminiscing? Did growing up like this alter me in any way, good or bad? I don't know but I'm glad I had the opportunity and I can't help but wonder if something has been lost.


Misty said...

I agree that it is quite sad that you rarely see children outside playing anymore. I live in a neighborhood with quite a few children but I mostly see them going from the car to the house. I very rarely see them playing outside nor do I hear them as I sit in my backyard (which you all know I do a lot of!). I think of my home as an oasis in the middle of a hectic world, there is no television, music plays softly all the time, but never so loud as so it intrudes into your thoughts. I am constantly amazed at so many homes where you walk in and the tv is going in one room, music is going in another and yet another tv is going in a third. It's no wonder the kids have ADD and the parents are too distracted to think. That much artificial stimulus is bad for the brains.
Having said all of that, one of my favourite moments in every week happens during coffee hour when the children gather outside to throw a ball, or (my personal favourite) dig that hole to China. To see so many little ones interacting with each other and this beautiful world around us warms my urban heart.

Jason said...

My guess is that it is less about parent's fear of their children being safe outside and more about the variety of indoor activities. Don't you remember how deprived WE were as children that we had to wait all week to watch Saturday morning cartoons? Now it's anytime, day or night, and if you miss your favorite, there's always DVR. Every Christmas I breathe a sigh of relief that my kids have yet to discover video games. That my 3 year old can turn on the computer, get online, and navigate the entire website from memory is not one of my brightest accomplishments with her. The TV and computer are convenient babysitters. It's the American way, don't you know? All about convenience.
The onus really falls on us much more as parents. Turn off the TV. Tell the kids to go outside - to go ride bikes. Even better is to lead by example. Get on your knees in the dirt and pull weeds in the garden. Collect roly-polys with them.
At the very least, they can play Wow Wow Wubzy in the trees in the back yard.

DStall said...

@Jason -