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.”
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.