Max didn’t mean to kill those toads. Still, years later, their demise remains one of my son’s most painful childhood memories. Max was three years old, and the morning was cool and dewy, but toasting up as the sun climbed. In capturing the toads, Max was dexterous, but also humane. He understood that they needed more than the hot tin floor of a Folgers can. He pulled up fistfuls of grass and gathered sticks and leaves to carpet the metal. He also filled a mayonnaise lid with water to make a tiny toad swimming pool. Things would have worked out fine had he not chosen the unprotected south side of the house as the place to forget his two captives for several hours. By the time Max opened the can, the toads were half baked by the beating sun.
Max was devastated, crying disconsolately over his carelessness. But agony can be instructive. I think it did him more good than harm to experience, early on, such an intimate and solitary exchange with the raw and sometimes cruel forces of nature. To glimpse the stubborn machinations of life and death. Every child should be so lucky.
Unfortunately, every child is not. Long afternoons in the great outdoors, sometimes strung out to sundown, have grown alarmingly uncommon for modern kids. With TV, Nintendo, and an ever-expanding array of “structured activities,” children are spending less time in unsupervised outdoor play than ever before—with potentially disastrous results.
Scheduled bursts of physical activity, it turns out, are no substitute for direct and ongoing experience in nature. The childhood obesity epidemic has peaked right alongside an unprecedented surge in children’s participation in organized sports. Clearly, playing freely outside affords both physical and mental benefits that Little League does not: prolonged exposure to the sun and its feel-good vitamins, and to bacteria, which experts now say is necessary for a healthy immune system. Child advocacy experts are even beginning to wonder how simple interactions with nature—climbing trees, wading through creeks, making mud pies, building forts—might foster overall health and happiness.
In his new book, Last Child in the Woods, Richard Louv calls the waning connection between children and nature a crisis in the making. Louv points out that time outdoors can provide a respite from the everyday pressures that lead to childhood depression. And in The Human Relationship with Nature, author Peter Kahn recounts the findings of more than one hundred studies confirming nature’s stress-reducing benefits. Moreover, these benefits, unlike so many of life’s other perks, bestow themselves most generously on those with the greatest need. “The protective impact of nearby nature is strongest for the most vulnerable children—those experiencing the highest levels of stressful life events,” says one environmental analysis researcher from Cornell, cited by Louv in his book. In other words, nature offers a potent balm to kids struggling with divorce, relocation, poverty, illness, or loss. One alternative is drugs: Twice as many American children take antidepressants today as five years ago.
So kids need to play outside. What simple and welcome news this should be to harried parents everywhere. Why, then, is it not happening? Seventy percent of today’s American mothers played outdoors every day during their childhoods, one recent study found, but just thirty-one percent of their children do. And while more than half of the moms stayed outside for three or more hours at a time when they were children, only twenty-two percent of their own children spend that kind of time out under the sun.
The reasons for the decline, it seems, are complex. Among the forces that have eroded our children’s time for outside play are homework (up twenty percent between 1981 and 1997), organized sports (up twenty-seven percent during that same period), and a flood of enticing indoor entertainments. Many books have been devoted to the deleterious effects of overprogramming our kids, but it turns out that another, less tangible force is a far more stubborn roadblock between kids and nature: fear.
“Fear of traffic, of crime, of stranger-danger—and of nature itself,” writes Louv, separates developing children from an unstructured exposure to nature and its life-giving benefits. The radius of space around the home in which children are allowed to roam on their own has shrunk to about a ninth of what it was in 1970. And while increased automobile traffic has undoubtedly restricted children’s range, Louv’s unscientific hunch (and my own) is that in the past twenty-five years, a “generalized, unfocused fear” has come to outrank traffic as the primary reason for penning kids in. This diffuse fear, which Louv calls the Bogeyman Syndrome, is fueled by the media, especially the nightly news, which creates a powerful “crime script” in the public’s mind.
Louv devotes an entire chapter to excessive fear and its consequences—which include, frighteningly enough, the permanent transformation of a person and modification of her behavior. Fear can change the very structure of the brain. But with all the best intentions, we bequeath this sense of fear—of strangers, germs, insects, physical pain—to our children. So instead of buying bicycles and badminton sets, we build indoor fortresses. We outfit our homes with year-round climate control and a tempting stash of electronic goodies. As one fourth-grader in Louv’s book explains, “I like to play indoors ’cause that’s where all the electrical outlets are.”
In Last Child in the Woods, Louv urges parents to set aside their fears and send kids back into the woods—or the yard or an empty lot, whatever’s realistic. The benefits far outweigh the dangers. As it stands, the average eight-year-old can more readily identify fast-food mascots and Pikachu, Metapod, and Jigglypuff (characters from the Japanese game Pokemon) than he can several quite common inhabitants of the natural world, such as otters, beetles, and oak trees.
Sending kids out to play does mean forfeiting a measure of control. But unsupervised play in wild places, no matter how small or ordinary, may be as fundamental to children’s health as food, water, and love. What they need most could be as simple as more time outside, with all its smells, tastes, splinters, and even accidents. More places to roughhouse and catch toads, without being told what they can and can’t touch. More opportunities to hone their characters, to discover possibilities and limitations. Just kids and nature. Nothing fancy.
Part of what makes Louv’s book so engaging is his skillful use of profiles and anecdotes. In one chapter, he refers to D.H. Lawrence, who once wrote of his own “awakening to nature’s sensory gift” in Taos, New Mexico. For Lawrence, this gift was an antidote to the “know-it-all” state of mind he recognized in himself and the culture at large, a mentality fostered by a globe that people now “trot round … as easily as they trot round … Central Park.” Lawrence wisely observed that our grandfathers, who never went anywhere, had more actual experience of the natural world than we have. He described our jaded affect this way: “We, bowling along in a rickshaw in Ceylon, say to ourselves: ‘It’s very much what you’d expect.’”
Direct experience in nature, on the other hand, should fill us with genuine wonder and awe, and make us feel appropriately small, thus placing us in a much-needed context with the larger world. To reap the benefits of nature, Lawrence wrote that one must get beneath the “transparent mucous-paper in which the world like a bon-bon is wrapped so carefully that we can never get at it.” Underneath that wrapping is everything we don’t know and are afraid of knowing.
Grand excursions to science museums, botanical gardens, and zoos, or even campgrounds and scenic wilderness areas, do help kids experience the breadth and depth of the natural world. But they don’t automatically invite the daily communion with nature that feeds the body and soul. Louv and Kellert both maintain that the kid-nature connection occurs most readily via mundane, up-close explorations of whatever patches of land are at hand. That’s because these interactions are spontaneous and unplanned and tend to occur in casual settings described by ecologist Robert Pyle as “places where kids … [are] free to climb trees, muck about, catch things, and get wet.”
It’s difficult to know the long-term implications of kids watching endless hours of TV, rather than ant hills and blades of grass. Hard information is so scant, in fact, that Stephen Kellert, author of the forthcoming book Building for Life: Designing and Understanding the Human Nature Connection, felt compelled to disclaim his chapter on nature and childhood development. “Given the relative lack of available research,” he wrote, “this chapter’s conclusions will be preliminary and tentative.”
One problem is a lack of money available to study the way children use woods, fields, vacant lots, and other unstructured natural sites. There is more financial incentive and commercial interest in having our children spellbound by cartoon characters and computer games. Yet even in the absence of statistics, the issue seems fairly clear-cut. Common sense tells us that kids need the outdoors.
What will happen if we produce a generation of adults afflicted with what Richard Louv has cleverly diagnosed “Nature Deficit Disorder”? Americans born between 1946 and 1964, says Louv, may constitute the last generation to share an intimate, familial bond with nature. That shift, Louv says, portends more than a threat to our future ability to appreciate or protect nature. It threatens our very humanity.
Mucking about is not just good old-fashioned fun. As Kellert eloquently points out in Building for Life, “… a child’s experience in nature can elicit far less pleasant feelings, such as uncertainty, anxiety, pain, and fear.” And all of it, even the stomach-turning shock of two dead toads in a coffee can, contributes to maturity, morality, and self-development. The naturalist Franklin Burroughs nailed it when he said—to a group of conservationists, interestingly enough—“better to let kids be a hazard to nature, and let nature be a hazard to them.”