Go Play Outside

June 19, 2006

While traveling back from my vacation, I came across an article in an in-flight magazine by Richard Louv, author of Last Child in the Woods: Saving Our Children from Nature-Deficit Disorder. My son had just spent a blissful week exploring my parents’ creek-crossed property, so the article made my heart sink as we flew back to our concrete-hemmed city lives. (Couldn’t find the link, but here’s another on the same subject.)

He discussed how the current generation of children is spending considerably less time experiencing the pleasures “such as fishing in a stream, building a tree house, hiking in the woods, climbing a tree, watching a campfire, idling in a special hiding spot in the woods, or just gazing at a nighttime sky or a bug in a vacant lot.”

The reasons why this is happening are varied: kids are involved in more scheduled activities and homework, modern parents harbor an increased fear of strangers, open space is being gobbled up by development. A child he interviewed preferred indoor play “because that’s where the electrical outlets are…”

Louv ties this trend to obesity, depression, hyperactivity, and attention problems. He also ponders the connection to nature for its role in stress reduction, creativity, and the value a person will ultimately place on stewardship and the preservation of wilderness.

Why does nature have such a profound effect on the human psyche? Louv thinks that exposure to a nature setting demands “immersion attention”–the use of all of one’s senses. That kind of exposure in turn boosts the brain’s ability to sustain “directed attention”–the concentration and focus that allows a child to stay attentive long enough to, for example, finish a homework assignment.

I wonder if in the future, video games will evolve to the point of offering the same sort of all-encompassing sensory experience of a forest, field, or creek. The idea kinda reminds me of the dystopian Charlton Heston movie Soylent Green, wherein wilderness has long been wiped from the face of the earth, and people are euthanized while watching nature films.

Interesting side note: Louv claims that there is little research being done on the effect nature has on the psyche and development of children because there is little commercial incentive to delve into that topic.

It’s ironic, he notes, that one of the few studies on the subject was conducted by a laundry detergent manufacturer–to find out why kids weren’t getting grass stains on their jeans anymore.