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When I was a child growing up in the suburbs of Atlanta, my favorite pastime was riding my bike down to the one lot in our subdivision that had never been developed. It was only a single acre, but it might as well have been a thousand. There were trees so thick you could lose sight of the road within a few steps. There was a creek—well, really more like a spring that trickled across the well-worn trail through the trees. There were blackberry bushes, toads, birds, possums, and a circular track right in the middle where my friends and I would race our bikes, pretending that we were in the Kentucky Derby or Indy 500. One girl even had a moped, and it was here that I experienced my first motorized wipe out. I dusted myself off, inspected the moped to make sure I wasn’t going to get in trouble for losing control, and got back on for another ride. That one acre of undisturbed nature was freedom to my nine-year-old heart, and the memories made there still bring me joy.
All except for one: the day bulldozers came in and cleared that lot, seemingly overnight. My heart was broken. I cried for the berries I would never again pick, for the frogs and possums who lost their homes, and for the loss of “my” place. This deprivation was the greatest injustice the world had ever seen.
The Great Migration
Fast forward twenty-plus years, and I swear I can still taste those berries and feel the breeze as I pedaled my bike between the trees. While that vacant lot is certainly not the most influential natural space of my life (that would be Philmont and the cabin my grandparents built near Algonquin Provincial Park in Ontario), it’s the one that I thought of most often as I read Richard Louv’s masterful Last Child in the Woods: Saving Our Children from Nature-Deficit Disorder. Louv examines the many reasons for—and consequences of—the great migration of children from outside to inside. Thanks to physical, cultural, and legal barriers, fewer children are spending time outside than ever before. What was once outside time has been filled with electronic devices, classroom instruction, and demanding schedules. What little time is left for outside play is spent in excessively structured and controlled environments, where natural play behavior is stymied or even litigated against.
As a result, children are also experiencing higher rates of obesity, depression, and anxiety. Their imaginations and creativity are dictated by the confines of whatever device they have in their hands. Education suffers. Focus drifts. Spirituality decreases. Even our ability to promote conservation and sustainability is at risk because kids don’t know enough about the natural world to worry about saving it.
Always an Excuse
And it isn’t just the children who are spending less time among the trees. Last Child in the Woods caused me to reflect on the impact that my own disconnect from nature has even on my adult life. Many adults don’t spend any more time outside than it takes to walk from the car to office and back again. While decidedly less entertaining, electronic devices still hold us captive inside as we check email and “social” media. We convince ourselves we don’t have time to go to the park, but we can still binge watch our favorite shows on Netflix after work. Are you still there? it asks after five hours. Continue Watching?
About a year ago, I wrote about finding my haven, a quiet park within walking distance of my apartment. I regret to admit that since writing that post, I can count on one hand the number of times I’ve been back there. Maybe two, but that’s stretching it. There’s always something “more important” to do. Always an excuse.
The things I allow to get between me and the nature I so desperately crave bring me little to no fulfillment. They spark no joy. They don’t help me be healthy, inspire my creativity, or draw me closer to God. So why do I let them get in the way?
Change is in the Wind
But like Louv points out, there is hope. Society is starting to catch on to the idea that access to nature is no luxury, it’s a necessity. There is still work to be done—in fact, Louv offers some very specific action steps you can take. I won’t spoil them here because I truly believe you should read this book. But it gives me hope that the tide is turning and we can change.
Starting with ourselves. I’m setting a goal right now, with you as my witness, to spend more quality time outside.
So if you’ll please excuse me, I’m going to the park now.
Title: Last Child in the Woods: Saving Our Children from Nature-Deficit Disorder
Author: Richard Louv
Score: (5 / 5)
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