“De-Natured” Childhood

“We tell our kids that traditional forms of outdoor play are against the rules…Then we get on their backs when they sit in front of the TV–and then we tell them to go outside and play. But where? How? Join another organized sport? Some kids don’t want to be organized all the time. They want to let their imaginations run; they want to see where a stream of water takes them.” — John Rick, a parent and middle-school teacher quoted in Last Child in the Woods: Saving Our Children from Nature Deficit Disorder, by Richard Louv.

And from Louv himself, in the same book: “Rick’s story reminded me of my early career as neighborhood treehouse architect, at nine or ten years old. … We picked the largest oak in the state, we figured: a tree that must have been two hundred years old. We erected a four-story house with a sealed bottom floor that we entered through a trap door on the floor of the second story. Each ascending level became more elaborate and larger as the branches of the tree opened out. The top floor was a crow’s nest that could only be reached by leaving the third story and crouch-walking out ten feet on a thick branch, transferring to a higher branch that dipped down close to the first one, and then traversing that branch to the crow’s nest — forty feet above the ground. The tree house was serviced by ropes and pulleys and two baskets. … To think of that tree house today, within the context of our litigious society, makes me shudder. I returned years later and the old tree was doing just fine.”

This book has been on my reading list for a long time, and even though I’m only on page 30 of 319, I already highly recommend it to anyone (whether or not you have kids of your own) who’s concerned about the wellbeing of humans and society. The patterns mentioned in this book (distancing ourselves from nature; de-legitimizing unstructured time outdoors) affect us all.

Update October 17: I finished the book yesterday, and I now definitely recommend it. Beyond the crucial topic of how nature deficit is affecting all of us, Louv also goes into solutions that are actually being implemented, from experiential education programs to whole town development plans that call for nature to be totally interwoven with street plans. Very inspiring stuff, which you can adapt to your own place. (And he goes into the importance of really being committed to a place — “becoming native to your place,” in the words of Wendell Berry and other similarly minded thinkers/activists who he quotes.)

Further Reading:

How Children Lost the Right to Roam in Four Generations (Children & Nature Network). “When George Thomas was eight he walked everywhere. It was 1926 and his parents were unable to afford the fare for a tram, let alone the cost of a bike and he regularly walked six miles to his favourite fishing haunt without adult supervision. Fast forward to 2007 and Mr Thomas’s eight-year-old great-grandson Edward enjoys none of that freedom. …”

Free Range Kids website (“How to raise safe, self-reliant children without going nuts with worry”)