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Guilt Trip into the Woods: Do Kids Really Need Nature?
Last summer, my husband and I wrestled with where to take our seven-year-old son for vacation: Someplace wild and natural? Or a few days in New York City? Part of me longed to spend a week at the beach; we could turn off the computers, we could spend all day outside, we could commune with nature like poets or saints, or at least wiggle free of the media snake for a few hours. It would be good for our son, Nick, I told myself dutifully, even if I knew he’d rather listen to my iPod.
The Big Apple won out. We arrived in New York on a warm July day and headed straight to Times Square after dinner. Staring up at the ten-story movie ads, scrolling numbers, and cartoon characters, Nick danced as if the sidewalk were on fire. He gazed in wonder, like all the other tourists, many sitting in lawn chairs on one closed section of Broadway. He begged to go back to Times Square every night, and we did. My husband and I loved it, too, and more surprisingly, we loved our son’s response.
Maybe I was wrong to choose the asphalt jungle over the forest primeval. I’d always assumed that nature was better for my child than anything else. Oceans: beautiful, good. Giant M&M’s leaping on flat-panel displays: ugly, evil. But after witnessing Nick’s delight in Times Square, I began to feel not so much wrong as barraged by a dire message at every turn: Your child is being damaged by a lack of contact with nature. If you don’t fix it now, he will turn fat and fearful; he’ll be rudderless, adrift in a sea of enervating boredom.
My son is not a glassy-eyed blob tethered to a screen. He’s an enthusiastic dynamo, and his love of manga and anime and digital cameras and computer games and PowerPoint to create his own stories has made me question if nature has become his generation’s version of castor oil. Is it really true that Nick and all other children are in a state of natural crisis? Or is this just another round of Oldsters versus Youngsters, with boomer oldsters re-claiming a familiar refrain? These kids today are going to hell in a hand basket.
Front and center in the movement to call kids back to nature is a book by journalist Richard Louv, Last Child in the Woods. Published in 2005, it was followed by an expanded paperback edition in 2008. That same year Louv received the Audubon Medal for, in the words of the National Audubon Society’s website, “sounding the alarm about the health and societal costs of children’s isolation from the natural world.” Louv is now the chairman of the Children & Nature Network, an organization that he co-founded in 2006 and which was sparked by his book. The nonprofit based in Santa Fe, with its “news service and portal” website, is devoted to promoting nature programs around the country and kicky slogans like “No Child Left Inside.”
Louv’s manifesto is deceptively calm in its early sections, almost sad, as if he knows he needs to reel in skeptics like me. In it, he argues that children are rapidly losing the free-roaming experience of outdoor play. Kids now know a lot about global warming, but few can name what birds they see in their own backyards. They’d rather stay inside, watching nature on TV, and for Louv, that’s a disaster.
His crusade is far from a lonely one. Since the publication of Last Child in the Woods, a mini-boomlet of nature activity books has appeared, including I Love Dirt!, Nature’s Playground, and The Green Hour: A Daily Dose of Nature for Happier, Healthier, Smarter Kids. The Children & Nature Network promotes everything from the Children in Nature Action Plan created by the National Park Service to learning gardens in Buffalo schools. (According to the website, “C&NN has identified over sixty regions that have either launched or are assembling grassroots campaigns to connect children with nature.”) Each book and campaign and after-school program urges parents to expose their kids to the great outdoors; each tap-taps away, creating yet another anxious drumbeat, hectoring us about what we’re doing wrong.
No parent believes kids should sit in front of a computer 24/7. But I can’t help but feel irked by the hyperbole in statements like, “To take nature and natural play away from children may be tantamount to withholding oxygen.” And I object strongly to the assumptions behind Louv’s message. As a feminist and white adoptive mom of an Asian son, I’m disturbed by the belief that what’s “natural” is always best for kids. This feels like ’60s nostalgia—the kind that wishes women’s liberation and the Internet hadn’t ever come along to mess things up.
In addition, the back-to-nature movement demonizes its perceived enemy—the siren song of high-tech leisure options—to an unrealistic degree. A number of studies funded since 2006 by the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation have found that children’s involvement with digital media is not just passive and addictive. Whether they’re creating photo collages and videos, hip-hop mixes, blogging their own stories, or modifying the rules of video games, kids can become empowered creators online. They’re not only sexting and aping celebrities.
The more I examine the work of Louv and his brethren, the less I’m persuaded that when boomers share stories of magical childhood times in a tree, “their cultural, political, and religious walls come tumbling down” as he claims. I just don’t believe that wonder can be reduced to one essential experience any more than motherhood can. And perhaps most disturbing for environmentalist moms and dads, I’m discovering that the nature movement—green and forward-thinking as it appears at first blush—looks an awful lot like a conservative message cloaked with some liberal fig leaves.
Last Child in the Woods isn’t telling a new story, but at the beat-me-whip-me level it’s an undeniably compelling one. Louv covers plenty of well-documented bad news, including the rise in childhood obesity, ADHD diagnoses, and electronic addiction.
Like most of my parent peers, I feel guilty—a lot. Every morning, when there’s barely enough caffeine in my system to cope, NPR seems to pummel me with stories about why our multi-tasking, Internet-chained pace isn’t good for kids… Continue reading on Brain Child’s site
Martha Nichols is a freelance writer in Cambridge, Massachusetts. Her work has appeared in Harvard Business Review, Utne Reader, Adoptive Families, Youth Today, and other publications. She is an instructor in the journalism program at the Harvard University Extension School, and a contributing editor and blog manager at Women’s Review of Books. She also blogs at Athena’s Head and Adopt-a-tude.
Brain, Child magazine: The Magazine for Thinking Mothers was founded in 1999 by Jennifer Niesslein and Stephanie Wilkinson, two friends who had babies under a year old. The pair, both with backgrounds in journalism, were itching for writing about motherhood that spoke to them.
Editor’s Note: What do you think, Do kids need nature? Add your thoughts in the Comments below, and you could be a lucky winner of a 1 year subscription to Brain, Child Magazine!
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