Thursday, July 21, 2016

The Taming of the American Child

I had just finished doing some yard work today when I spotted them: berries.  Raspberries or blackberries.  LOTS of them, and many were the almost-black of peak ripeness.  I turned over a leaf--green: blackberries, then.  (Raspberry leaves are white underneath, but their berries are just as sweet.)  As I picked all I could carry, I wondered.

A brief survey
  1. When did you last pick and eat a wild berry? 
  2. When did you last see the moon?  (Did you know the moon was full on Wednesday?) 
  3. When did you last pause to listen to birds sing? 
  4. When did you last spend half an hour in your garden?  (Do you even have a garden?) 
  5. When did you  relax outdoors with a little something to eat or drink? 
  6. When did you last walk a mile or more in a wood or a park or another natural place?

I hope you have good answers!  But your children may answer these questions very differently than you do. Yesterday I listened to a radio interview with author Scott Sampson (How To Raise A Wild Child: The Art and Science of Falling In Love With Nature) who cited a statistic that scared me:  
American kids today spend only four to seven minutes a day playing outdoors.

The statistic was new to me, if not the issue--advocating that people get outdoors and experience the natural world was the reason I started this blog.  It also led me to  a few years ago to design and run an after school program designed in part to get city kids outdoors.  Even so, I hadn't imagined the situation was that bad.

Sampson sees two big consequences.  Children grow up impoverished, lacking awareness of the world around them, and are also less healthy (studies have found that spending time in nature reduces stress hormones).  Just as important--perhaps even more so--they will not develop the love of natural environments, the emotional connection, that provides the impetus to save these places.  And of course nature itself is increasingly in danger from human activities ranging from over-fishing to habitat destruction to greenhouse gas emissions.  Our very future might very well depend on the emotional connections we and our children form with the wild outdoors.  

Sampson blames many forces, including the lure of electronics, over-scheduling by busy parents who want kids supervised, and fears of media-soaked parents who see a child outdoors and unsupervised as a target in a dangerous world.  

Their parents largely grew up differently.  It was commonplace in my neighborhood to be told to shut off the TV and GO OUTDOORS.  We would be left to our own devices without supervision for hours at a time--for whole days in summer.  Was this dangerous?  Perhaps.  But not nearly as dangerous as we have come to assume today, after a generation of seeing kidnapped children's faces on milk cartons. 

Of course, some neighborhoods really aren't safe, and these present special challenges.  And the issue is, in general, not on the radar screens of less-affluent, or those from an ethnic minority.  But it needs to be.

Sampson's  solution for those of us who care about this?  Start small and manageable: get your kids outside for half an hour three times a week.  

Go to wild places--they don't need to be wilderness.  EngageNotice things--the clouds, the weather, trees, bugs.  Wonder about things: asking questions is much more important than answering questions. 

So much depends on adult attitudes that children absorb.  Are bugs yucky, or cool?  Are grass-stained knees a disaster, or something to accommodate with "play clothes?"  Does a skinned knee call for major first aid, or just some antiseptic and a bandaid?  Do you avoid rain or cold like the plague, or do you simply dress differently? 

Plant yards and cities with native plants.  Native plants attract native insects, birds, and other animals.  And don't manicure everything, for goodness' sake!

In school, space needs to be made for recess, or other outdoor time.  Though time is short in the era of standardized testing, freedom to burn a little energy might pay dividends in greater attention during regular learning.  

It may take a generation or longer to get back to a society in which "free range" parenting isn't a crime, and where boredom can be viewed as a creative force (a bored child might be forced to entertain herself!), but it is vital we do so. 

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