Richard Louv’s Nature-Deficit Disorder

When I told Montessori teacher Emily Zola about my idea for an intergenerational care community that would feature engagement with natural life as a key element, she insisted that I read Richard Louv’s Last Child in the Woods: Saving Our Children from Nature-Deficit Disorder.

“The children and nature movement is fueled by this fundamental idea: the child in nature is an endangered species, and the health of children and the health of the Earth are inseparable.”

-Richard Louv

This book presents a compelling and pressing argument about the shift that is happening in our children as a result of societal changes such as our obsession with media technology and a litigious mania to the degree that Girl scouts can no longer climb trees at camp. He discusses at length the growing studies that point to correlations between improvement in child health issues such as ADHD, obesity, depression and the engagement in the out of doors.

Stephen and Rachel Kaplan have done numerous studies in what they call “attention-restoration theory” such as a nine year study of participants in wilderness retreat programs. It’s not surprising that they discovered that the subjects reported “experiencing a sense of peace and an ability to think more clearly”. More interestingly, they began to find that “just being in nature was more restorative than the physically challenging activities.” In other words, they were finding that having all of our activities structured and challenging leads to “directed-attention fatigue which leads to impulsive behavior, agitation, irritation, and an inability to concentrate.” In our helicopter age of parenting, we need to learn to back off, or as Louv quotes Deborah Churchman, associate editor for the children’s magazine Ranger Rick:

“Your job isn’t to hit them with another Fine Educational Opportunity, but to turn them on to what a neat world we live in.”

Of added note, the Kaplans found in a survey of twelve hundred corporations that “those with a window view of trees, bushes or large lawns experienced significantly less frustration and more work than enthusiasm than those employees without such a view.”

Just being outside with free time to play and explore and imagine is key to the developing mind and spirit and body of a child. This is how a child develops their own intimate connection with the earth and its creations. By contrast, Louv talks about how school education curriculum on nature is increasingly geared now towards catastrophic problems of the environment, to the degree that children are numbing to nature. This phenomenon is developed by David Sobel who terms it “ecophobia”.

Lacking direct experience with nature, children begin to associate it with fear and apocalypse. He (Sobel) offers this analogy of dissociation: In response to physical and sexual abuse, children learn to cut themselves off from pain. Emotionally, they turn off. ‘ My fear is that our environmentally correct curriculum ends up distancing children from, rather than connecting them with, the natural world. The natural world is being abused and they just don’t want to have to deal with it.”

The garden and outdoor areas of the Mister Woods Intergenerational Care Community will have space to play and get muddy and sit quietly next to a bed of comfrey or climb a tree (waivers!) It won’t be asphalt and perfectly groomed beds of annuals. Louv says that even an empty, scruffy lot on a city block can be a place for a deep encounter with nature. The key is to have the experience be of the child’s own encounter, imagination and creation.

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Theological Reflection on the Project’s Intentions

At the start of this new website blog, I would like to state up front that my orientation to this project is unabashedly spiritual. The ideas for Mister Woods come from transcendent moments in providing spiritual care for elders, in struggling with my despair and frustration and wanting to see change happen, and from visions and messages. Guiding me is the question I can ask myself: “What would I want for myself when/if I am unable to care for myself and have no financial resources to do so?” In other words, application of the Golden Rule. Another question guiding me also is one I often ask myself: “What is my most beautiful intention here?”

What is my most beautiful intention?

Checking in with myself to see what is my most beautiful intention in any given moment of choice is one of the ways that I can align myself with that “Place of the Greater Good”, or God, or the Spirit of Life (the list goes on…) Well, often that might first require digging around to find what your hidden intention is (hidden to yourself, that is), assessing what your need is, and then adjusting the dial so that it becomes your most beautiful intention. When you “hit” the inner knowing of your most beautiful intention it feels “right”. There can be a warm glow, a sudden flow of energy, a sense of creativity opening up, a sense that you are coming from your best self. For me, this felt sense that I experience marks that I am on the right path, the Red Road. There is wind in my sails. Proceed this way.

As we move forward with manifesting a new creation, we stay on course by being directed by this intention and we stay on course by holding before us our “high resolve”. One of the co-founding ministers of the church I belong to – The Church for the Fellowship of All Peoples – was Howard Thurman (1899-1981) . Thurman was a prolific writer in the mystical tradition, one of the top 12 ministers of his era according to Life magazine, and the spiritual advisor to Martin Luther King Jr. and many others in the Civil Rights Movement. Thurman bolsters us with these words in those times when our spirits are flagging:

 “In the quietness of this place, surrounded by the all-pervading Presence of God, my heart whispers: Keep fresh before me the moments of my High Resolve, that in fair weather or in foul, in good times or in tempests, in the days when the darkness and the foe are nameless or familiar, I may not forget that to which my life is committed.

Keep fresh before me the moments of my high resolve.” 

(Meditations of the Heart, Beacon Press, 1953, p. 210)

Howard Thurman

So what are my most beautiful intentions? I want to see a community like this for several reasons: to serve the social and human needs of people – especially those who have no/low resources, to keep alive a vital and responsible connection to the earth, and to nourish the spirits of our children, our infirm and our elders. As this project discussion unfolds, I hope to bring in the voices of some of the clergy members who I have had the good fortune to interview as well as insights from other theologians and fellow seminarians from various schools affiliated with the Graduate Theological Union. I hope that many of you will share your reflections as well.

Some of the upcoming areas of discussion from me will be around these ideas:

• The Mister Woods intergenerational care community as a reflection of our interdependent nature (Buddhist, quantum, defying isolation), our need for interconnectedness, Relationality theology.

• Presence in nature provides opportunity for inner spaciousness, transcendent experiences.

• Ritualizing our life passages

• Ideas on spirituality in the late stages of life, (Lars Tornstam’s Gerotranscendence, i.e.)

• Children, Nature and Spirituality ( Edward Hoffman and others)

• Spiritual connections between children and seniors.

• The elders: Wisdom keepers

• Nature as scripture: what the plant nation can teach us.

Montessori Education

There is a lot of great innovation in early childhood education, so I think that the nursery school element of this intergenerational care community could be designed after many possible educational models. However, I find that the Montessori educational model is a particularly excellent one. The system was created by Maria Montessori who opened her first school in 1907 where she began her recorded observations of the children and the best practices for their development. These are some of the distinct features of the Montessori educational model:

• Children are allowed to choose freely, which innately leads them to select the activities that challenge them at the level they are ready to manage

• Children are encouraged to work things out on their own

• Mixed age classrooms (2 ½ up to 6 years) – children learn by teaching each other

• The classroom environment is orderly

• Objects are made of real materials that attract the child and develop touching sensitivity

• Children use all their senses to learn and to promote their development

• Teachers don’t “teach”- they are directors/directresses who show how and then observe and facilitate

Do not tell them how to do it. Show them how to do it and do not say a word. If you tell them, they will watch your lips move. If you show them, they will want to do it themselves.

– Maria Montessori

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