Tuesday, March 21, 2006

Nature and children

Spring is beginning to arrive in our little corner of the planet, and I couldn't be happier, because it means my daughter and I can get outside more.

Much of the winter has been dedicated to reading books and playing board games (she's already on her way to being a decent chess player). Mind you, she's a pretty normal child, and she still likes to watch some TV. But what we both like to do best is get outside and do things: visit parks and playgrounds, go to the beach, take hikes in the woods.

I think being out in Nature is just essential to her developmental health. Certainly, her behavior reflects it; she's at her worst when she's been cooped up for days.

I'm not sure if this is just instinctive parenting on my part, but I was pleased to read this piece in Sunday's P-I op-ed section on the importance of nature education to children's well-being, and how being deprived of it is proving to have horrible consequences.

Among them is increasing obesity and a reliance on electronic entertainment. And a lot of it is occurring in a cultural milieu in which parents are constantly being frightened into keeping their kids indoors:
Why is this occurring, even in a state as rich in natural landscapes as Washington? While researching "Last Child in the Woods: Saving Our Children from Nature-Deficit Disorder," I talked with hundreds of parents across the country who said their children spend less time in nature than they did when they were young. Parents point to diminishing access to natural areas, competition with electronic entertainment, increased homework, longer school hours and other time pressures. Most of all, parents cite fear -- of traffic, nature itself and, most of all, strangers.

I understand that fear and have felt it as a parent. But consider the facts: Violent victimization of children has dropped by more than 38 percent since 1975, according to Duke University's 2005 Child Well Being Index. What has increased is round-the-clock news coverage of a few tragedies involving children. This relative handful of abduction stories is repeated so often that American families are being conditioned to live in a state of fear.

Yes, there are risks outside the home, but there are also risks when we raise a generation of children under virtual protective house arrest. Many educators and health-care professionals are concerned about the dramatic increases they are seeing in childhood obesity rates, attention difficulties and depression. While pediatricians see fewer children with broken bones these days, they report more children with longer-lasting repetitive-stress injuries, related to overuse of keyboards and video game controllers.

The piece goes on to explore programs now under way to try to bolster nature education in Washington state. If it's successful, as I believe it probably will be, it could be a model for much of the rest of the nation:
Healing the broken bond between our young and nature is in our self-interest, not only because aesthetics or justice demands it, but also because our mental, physical and spiritual health depend upon it. So does the health of the Earth. Conservation-oriented groups are beginning to realize that a generation that has had little or no personal connection to nature is unlikely to produce passionate stewards of the Earth.

It all reminds me of something Hayao Miyazaki told the New Yorker in an interview:
"I'm not jealous of young people," he said. "They're not really free." I asked him what he meant. "They're raised on virtual reality. And it's not like it's any better in the countryside. You go to the country and kids spend more time staring at DVDs than kids do in the city. I have a place in the mountains, and a friend of mine runs a small junio-high school nearby. Out of twenty-seven pupils, he told me, nine do their schoolwork from home! They're too afraid to leave their homes." He went on, "The best thing would be for virtual reality just to disappear. I realize that with our animation we are creating virtual things, too. I keep telling my crew, 'Don't watch animation! You're surrounded by enough virtual things already.' "

As I noted at the time:
This isn't just grousing over "modern ways": it's a recognition that our materialism and desire for convenience and entertainment is leading us down a path where we lose our touch with what it is that makes us human.

Moreover, the right-wing "values" crowd is so eager to tout unbridled capitalism that it never seems to take stock of the fact that such an ethos is driving the very loss of values they're decrying. And I think progressives -- who are, at base, humanists -- should be taking stock of the need for the genuine traditional values we're losing in our rush to modernity as well.

Those values are the things we most want to hand down to our children. But always for them, actions speak much louder than words. And being in nature teaches them so much more than TV programs about nature.

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