Thursday, April 26, 2012

Escape from the Concrete Prison

Growing up in Brooklyn, my relationship with nature as a child was quite limited. My knowledge of nature, even more so. In fact, my life in relation to nature was limited to visits to Sunset park, the library and what I saw on tv.  My environment served as a concrete prison, keeping me encased in a man made world of greys and blacks, a world of sadness and desperation.The perverted versions of nature in the asphalt and concrete sea that surrounded my world featured small green patches of grass and the occasional tree. There were no bird nests, song birds or squirrels in these trees, instead there were pigeons, my idea of rats with wings. The sounds of the morning were the roar of the bus, the screech of the train and the occasional "shut up" shouted from a third story window.

However, there were a few moments in my life that I was able to engage fully with nature. Summer time meant beach visits to Coney Island, a trip I looked forward to each year. Looking back, a beach filled with littered sand, polluted sea water  and plastic bag jellyfish should hardly be considered communing with nature. Yet, it was at these times I was able to run freely along the sand with the salt wind whipping my hair behind me, feel the sun kiss my skin with its radiant energy, submerge into the weightless care free world underwater and enjoy feeling connected to something more, something bigger than myself.

In my teenage years, we moved South to Alabama. I cried as I watched the sun disappear and with it, my known reality as we crossed the Verazano Bridge for the last time. Although we moved to the city of Hoover, which was also more developed than rural, at last nature was around me. My building was surrounded by trees and grass. There were flowers, hills, lakes, rocks, birds and squirrels. I spent my free time outside climbing trees, walking nature paths, and soaking up sun until it set.

When thinking of my childhood and the desire to spend as much time as possible outside engaged in play I am saddened. I know that with this generation, modern childhood play has evolved into virtual relationships with tv, video games, cellphones and computers, in other words sedentary activity. After hours of this zombie play, children are left with their natural energy and no outlet. At school and even when with parents, this energy expresses itself in the inability to focus the mind, still the body and follow directions. There are lots of contributing factors, but mainly nature deficient play is to blame. More accurately, lack of active play outdoors engaged in physical activity is to blame. Let me elaborate.

Children should actively engage in play and exploration outdoors as often as weather will allow. This statement is not a mysterious wonder of the universe, most adults would agree with it, whether they hold a degree in education, health, exercise, forestry or none at all. Yet, our society excludes this message at all costs, on all levels. The message our society does send: Nature is scary and your doom, it is inconvenient, messy, boring and should be avoided at all costs! From the way we construct cities, structure schools, organize activities and the media we consume, we restrict our dealings with nature to a minimum and instead inject an impostor, that is synthetic nature. Yes, synthetic nature, you've seen it, you know the manicured lawn that is dyed green, or the stone, concrete and rubber water feature in your neighborhood park. This need for synthetic nature, the need to control and improve nature is rooted so deep in this culture that is even seen in our scientific motives to control natural rhythmic cycles and force bio-engineering and genetic modification. We as a society are sent a message to detach from natural and rely on man's ingenuity, we should get the latest gadget and be connected with the people of the world but not the actual earth we inhabit. We should eat global food and not participate or even know its origin or development. We should consume resources blindly without understanding their renew-ability or lack thereof. This lack of a connection with nature is hurting our children, our selves and our society.

I am not the only person that has detected that the need for human interaction with nature is becoming increasingly important. I recently read a wonderful book, in fact wanting to read and finish this book delayed my blog post. Sorry to all my regular readers, I had to finish it so I could finish this post. It is worth the read, Last Child in the Woods by Richard Louv.He coins the term Nature Deficit Disorder. It is not a medical condition, it describes our lack of a relationship to the environment. It hurts our children, our families, our communities and our environment. He links this to behavior disorders, health problems like obesity and depression, as well as a lack of knowledge and respect for nature. He argues that the implications are:
  • Children have limited respect for their immediate natural surroundings. Louv says the effects of Nature Deficit Disorder on our children will be an even bigger problem in the future. "An increasing pace in the last three decades, approximately, of a rapid disengagement between children and direct experiences in nature… has profound implications, not only for the health of future generations but for the health of the Earth itself." The effects from Nature Deficit Disorder could lead to the first generation being at risk of having a shorter lifespan then their parents.
  • Attention disorders and depression may develop. "It's a problem because kids who don't get nature-time seem more prone to anxiety, depression and attention-deficit problems." Louv suggests that going outside and being in the quiet and calm can help greatly. According to t a University of Illinois study, interaction with nature has proven to reduce symptoms of ADD in children. According to research, "Overall, our findings indicate that exposure to ordinary natural settings in the course of common after-school and weekend activities may be widely effective in reducing attention deficit symptoms in children."  Attention Restoration Theory develops this idea further, both in short term restoration of one's abilities, and the long term ability to cope with stress and adversity.
  • Following the development of ADD and mood disorders, lower grades in school also seem to be related to NDD. Louv claims that "studies of students in California and nationwide show that schools that use outdoor classrooms and other forms of experiential education produce significant student gains in social studies, science, language arts, and math".
  • Childhood obesity has become a growing problem. About 9 million children (ages 6–19) are overweight or obese. The Institute of Medicine claims that over the past 30 years, childhood obesity has more than doubled for adolescents and more than tripled for children aged 6–11.
  • In an interview on Public School Insight, Louv stated some positive effects of treating Nature Deficit Disorder, "everything from a positive effect on the attention span to stress reduction to creativity, cognitive development, and their sense of wonder and connection to the earth."

We must work to heal this broken bond our society possesses with nature. We must engage in nature, with our children and in our communities. We must find the innate natural bond we all possess with the earth and its life. We must try to allow our children to grow and develop their own bond with nature through family activities and time to explore independently. There are so many opportunities to engage nature! Take a camping trip, in the nearest park or your own back yard. Visit the farmer's market, a farm, or even in an urban setting, the botanical gardens. There are so many opportunities to get your family involved with nature, from the small like camping in your yard to the big like living in a RV and exploring the United States. Whatever your commitment level, big or small, your child, your life, your community can benefit from some quality nature time.  So put down the matrix, get motivated, get out and experience real life!

Need more help getting active?
Visit a National Park for FREE during National Park Week April 21-29th
Take a walk in the local park
Go birding
Ride your bike around the neighborhood or park
Plant a garden
Enroll your child in a nature based camp
Go camping
Cant find a group? Start one!

Link up with a local organization:
Children and Nature Network  
Boy Scouts  
Girl Scouts 
Outward Bound  
Wildlife Conservation Society 
Earth Explore Adventures  
National Audubon Society 
Into the Outside 
Ecological Literacy Program
Geography Action  
Sierra Club  
The Society for Amateur Scientists  
National Environmental Directory

"Along with milk and vegetables, kids need a steady diet of rocks and worms
Rocks need skipping.
Holes need digging.
Water needs splashing.
Bugs and frogs and slimy stuff need finding"
Go Rving

"Nature is just enough; but men and women must comprehend and accept her suggestions."
Antoinette Brown Blackwell

"To see a world in a grain of sand,
And a heaven in a wild flower,
Hold infinity in the palm of your hand,
An eternity in an hour.:
William Blake
"Children are born naturalist. They explore the world with all their senses, experiment in the environment, and communicate their discoveries to those around them. "
The Aubudon Nature Preschool

1."A child’s world is fresh and new and beautiful, full of wonder and excitement. It is our misfortune that for most of us that clear-eyed vision, that true instinct for what is beautiful, is dimmed and even lost  before we reach adulthood."

2."Play, Incorporating Animistic and Magical Thinking Is Important Because It:
Fosters the healthy, creative and emotional growth of a child;
Forms the best foundation for later intellectual growth.
Provides a way in which children get to know the world and creates possibilities for different ways of responding to it.
Fosters empathy and wonder."

"By suggestion and example, I believe children can be helped to hear the many voices about them.  Take Time to listen and talk about the voices of the earth and what they mean—the majestic voice of thunder, the winds, the sound of surf or flowing streams."

 "For the child. . . it is not half so important to know as to feel. If facts are the seeds that later produce knowledge and wisdom, then the emotions and the impressions of the senses are the fertile soil in which the seeds must grow. The years of early childhood are the time to prepare the soil. Once the emotions have been aroused - a sense of the beautiful, the excitement of the new and the unknown, a feeling of sympathy, pity, admiration or love - then we wish for knowledge about the object of our emotional response . . . It is more important to pave the way for a child to want to know than to put him on a diet of facts that he is not ready to assimilate."

1-3 Rachel Carson

"Children the world over have a right to a childhood filled with beauty, joy, adventure, and companionship. They will grow toward ecological literacy if the soil they are nurtured in is rich with experience, love, and good examples."
Alan Dyer

"The best remedy for those who are afraid, lonely or unhappy is to go outside, somewhere where they can be quiet, alone with the heavens, nature and God. Because only then does one feel that all is as it should be and that God wishes to see people happy, amidst the simple beauty of nature."
Anne Frank

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