Willow Mariah Nelson, my five-year-old goddaughter and niece, proudly showed me recently how she can swing across the entire horizonal ladder at a local playground. During my recent visit to her Belair, California home, we also jumped on her trampoline and hiked up the hill behind her home, discovering numerous fascinating little bugs along the way. Last year, her father and I took her camping. When we gather at the New Jersey shore, we spend evenings catching (and releasing) toads.
All of these outdoor activities engage and delight Willow – thank goodness.
Fewer and fewer kids enjoy exploring their natural environment or even playing outdoors, according to an article in today’s Washington Post called “Getting Lost in the Great Outdoors.”
Studies that measure children’s time outdoors omit organized sports from the accounting – perhaps because what psychologists believe children need is not just fresh air but free play. Time to explore. Freedom to make up their own games. Permission to wander, and to wonder.
As adults, it’s easy to romanticize our own childhoods, and bemoan the fact that kids these days don’t do what we did. But as I’ve watched not only Willow but numerous other nieces, nephews, and young friends grow up over the years, this trend toward indoor-only play seems obvious – and ominous.
My brother and I used to spend summer evenings playing kick the can, “tree seek,” baseball, tetherball, and football in our yards, or neighbors’ yards. We rode bikes around the neighborhood, explored the woods near our house, built dams across the creek, caught lightning bugs in jars, and hung upside down from the swingset, pretending we were bats. Perhaps it’s because of these happy memories that he now takes Willow and her brother Tanner outdoors every chance he gets.
Yet even in the six-year span from 1997 to 2003, there was a fifty percent decline in the proportion of 9-to-12-year-olds who spent time hiking, fishing, gardening, or playing at th beach, according to one study at the University of Maryland.
In Last Child in the Woods, author Richard Louv contends that children who stay indoors suffer from “nature deficit disorder,” missing out on “the spiritual, emotional, and psychological benefits of exposure to the wonders of nature, including reduced stress and improved cognitive development, creativity, and cooperative play.”
I want such benefits – and simple enjoyment – for the children in my life. Don’t you?