Staten Islander Exclusive
Richard Louv’s book, Last Child In The Woods, birthed a movement. This movement has been growing over time, and its purpose is simple: to return children to nature and give them more hand-on experiences.
In previous generations, there was a lot more exposure to the natural world among younger people, including children and adolescents. What did this mean in real life? Kids would play outside unsupervised. They would go on hikes, build tree-houses in local undeveloped lots, and sleep under the stars in warmer weather. This seems like a foreign concept to young people today, but there was a time before everything was structured. Before play-dates and after-school activities.
In fact, in previous generations, it was not against the law to leave one’s children at home by themselves, or if it was, this was not enforced. Having children play outside unsupervised was similarly not illegal. However, after the many kidnappings that occurred in the 1970s and 80s, including that of Jennifer Schweiger and other young girls on Staten Island by Andre Rand and possibly others, those laws started to change.
Fear Of The Boogeyman, Previously Rooted In Fact and Statistics
Not only did constant supervision until a much later age become the norm, but housing developments, towns, and other governing bodies, such as homeowners’ associations, began to restrict what children could and could not do. In many housing developments, children cannot play outside. They cannot play certain games or do certain other things. In the past, kids used to set up nets and play hockey in the street. They used to build tree-houses in vacant lots and small wooded areas that were actually private, not public, property. Even in parks and woodlands owned by municipalities and the public, tree-houses are considered destructive and are disallowed. In essence, children cannot play outside in the current idiom.
Children must have constant supervision due to the fear of the boogeyman and the laws that this engendered. As the author points out, this fear may be overblown. It is much less likely for a child to be kidnapped and abused by a stranger than for them to be taken by someone they know. The case of Andre Rand and others like him is a rarer case than many people realize. Due to the nature of media reporting, and the tendency to focus exclusively on negative occurrences, many parents have an unrealistic idea of the possibilities for their children.
In addition to the way that media reporting tends to focus on the negative, statistically speaking these types of crimes have declined sharply since 1975. For whatever reason, kidnappings and abductions, as of 2006, make up only about 1% of the overall crimes committed. This was much higher back then. In other words, while it may have been a serious problem in the past, the incidence of it has declined sharply, making some of the precautionary laws and rules that have been enacted seem over-done.
While this is not to say that caution is not necessary, making it so that children must be locked up in their homes and always in front of a screen, whether a computer, tablet or cellphone, is unfair to them. Constantly monitoring a child can seriously stifle their sense of independence, which is a necessary part of growing up. More importantly, though, it can have negative effects that are not yet understood.
In a scientific sense, missing out on natural experiences, i.e. those that occur in nature, has measurable deleterious effects on children’s learning, capabilities, and mental health. While there are also effects on health in general, the notable effects on mental health are much more severe. Studies have already shown, and continue to show, that when those suffering with certain mental health issues, such as depression and anxiety for example, are exposed to nature, their conditions improve significantly.
However, this is not the only benefit. Cognitive impacts have been shown as well. But perhaps much more striking are the experiences themselves, and the benefits that they can bring to a person on a spiritual level, as well as a physical level. For example, learning to pay closer attention can be helpful in so many more areas of life than just being in the outdoors. Learning to pay attention to the world around them, instead of being immersed in an imaginary world, can be very valuable.
Perhaps more importantly than just thinking of it in terms of benefits is how the author explores the life-changing experiences people, particularly children and young adults, have in nature, and how these experiences change them in some way. It may be that it imparts a new insight into one’s life. It can also be that the sense of wonder that nature experiences engender can help them to bring that sense of wonder into their everyday lives. It can change them in ways that we cannot yet understand.
The Importance of Alternative Types of Education
Another place where nature experiences have taken center-stage is in regards to education. It has been found again and again, in real-life scenarios and situations, that teaching children in nature can facilitate their learning. So, for example, there are schools that have sprung up in recent decades where the classrooms are outdoors. The children are taught in the open air outside about all of the normal topics of school.
Not only this, though, as these same teachers often take the children on excursions. Perhaps they will visit the pond on the grounds to learn about the animals living in and around the water. Boy Scouts and Girl Scouts also teach valuable outdoor skills to kids of many age groups, and often take camping trips that are outdoors.
It has been shown as well that learning in nature improves cognition, and can actually help with retention for many young people. If more kids learned outdoors, and if more schools were surrounded with greenery and parkland, there would likely be marked improvement in their overall learning abilities. This is an issue that is of particular concern in lower income areas where there is often very little greenery. In recent years, particularly in New York City, the way seems to have been lost when it comes to this particular benefit of greenspace.
For example, many playgrounds are being constructed on school grounds that are devoid of any natural areas. A project recently funded by the Trust For Public Land in Newark features brightly colored plastic play equipment, lots of asphalt play areas, and an outdoor classroom, which is not well-defined. The photos do not show any of the greenspace, and it may only be a small area reserved for this.
A similar playground at Staten Island’s I.S.7 also has very little actual greenspace. It features mostly open turf, with a few small trees at the border of the track field. While these types of playgrounds are still useful, they provide very little in terms of actual nature experiences. There is so little greenery that it is still much closer to an indoor classroom than to a wooded area.
Due to the lack of greenery in these playgrounds, they are unlikely to provide the type of cognitive, social, and learning benefits that can be found in more natural areas. However, it is a start, and allows much room for improvement.
The Spiritual Aspects of Nature Experiences
The author concludes with a strong sense of optimism. While the movement was still in its infancy when the book was written, this forward-thinking book has contributed much to the individuals, environmental groups, schools, and other who are following in its footsteps. For example, he points out that more people are leaving the cities to move to more rural areas than in the past.
More and more people are learning about the importance of preserving the natural world, both for reasons of beauty and of health. More people are trying to bring to their children the same sense of wonder that they were allowed to experience when they were growing up. The author also stresses that there are many different kinds of nature experiences that kid can have, and that many of them are both animal- and environmentally-friendly.
For example, fishing, while considered to be a cruel sport, can be practiced in a way that does not harm. Using non-barbed hooks and always throwing the fish back that have been caught is less damaging than previous practices of fishing. However, hunting has been discarded by many families in favor of birdwatching and hiking, as there is no legitimate way to hunt humanely.
Not only do these experiences bring families together, they also have many benefits on children’s social, emotional, and cognitive growth. As more and more people become aware of the benefits of natural experiences, they also become aware of the importance of preserving what is left. Wanton destruction, including clear-cutting, of natural areas, is becoming less acceptable as a practice, and towns and cities are moving more toward a sustainable and environmentally-friendly way of coexisting with the other inhabitants of the planet, whether animal or plant.
And there is also the not-so-easily defined experiences of the divine that nature can provide. The feeling that there is a higher power can be felt more easily in a dense forest than it can be in the city. And this inspires hope and a sense of wonder, that we are not alone in the universe, and that life is important. All of these lessons and many more can be learned through the natural world.
This book is highly recommended, and was a fascinating read. I would give it five stars.
Banner Image: Child in the woods. Image Credit – Sestrjevitovschii Ina