There was a time, not all that long ago really, when most children grew up close to nature. In 1900, 40% of the U.S. population lived on farms, and even city dwellers had relatively easy access to undeveloped open spaces. By 1990, less than 2% of the US population lived on farms, and too often modern city dwellers must fight traffic for an hour or more to reach remaining patches of wildlife habitat. That’s a big change in a relatively short period of time. Our connections to rural places are dwindling, and I often find myself wondering what effects these changes have on our kids.
Richard Louv posed the question well in his book Last Child in the Woods. “Nature is imperfectly perfect, filled with loose parts and possibilities, with mud and dust, nettles and sky, transcendent hands-on moments and skinned knees. What happens when all the parts of childhood are soldered down, when the young no longer have the time or space to play in their family’s garden, cycle home in the dark with the stars and moon illuminating their route, walk down through the woods to the river, lie on their backs on hot July days in the long grass, or watch cockleburs, lit by morning sun, like bumblebees quivering on harp wires? What then?”
Too many of our remaining open spaces are shrinking, often disappearing entirely as the human population keeps growing, requiring more resources, more housing tracts, more strip malls. The result is often increased pressure and overuse of the few open spaces that do remain, and this increased pressure often leads to new rules aimed at protecting these resources. Today more than 57 million Americans live in homes ruled by some type of condominium or homeowner’s association, and many of these groups have strict covenants that ban or discourage kids from playing in landscaped or natural areas. City ordinances also often restrict children’s access to open spaces or limit the activities they can engage in while playing outside.
The intent of these rules is generally good—protection of a shrinking resource. But discouragement of natural play has been a sad and unintended consequence. Many remaining pockets of urban open space are now strictly set aside to be seen—not touched. Too often, there is no room left for free, unorganized, outdoor play. And this creates unfortunate consequences for kids. In too many communities there is nowhere left for them to wander off the sidewalk, build forts of fallen branches, construct rock pools along streams, catch snakes, find out what wild onion tastes like, or lay on the earth in the dappled shade of an oak tree, unhassled, unhurried, unscheduled, simply reflecting and dreaming. As these quintessential outdoor childhood moments fade, I can’t help but worry that there is some important aspect of being human that fades along with them.
In the not too distant past, a basic familiarity with and understanding of the natural world was seen as an important character trait. As Robert Michael Pyle explains, “George Washington and Thomas Jefferson were both excellent naturalists. A lively, experimental curiosity in plants and animals was nothing unusual, it was simply one component of the engaged citizen’s life.” In their day, and for more than a century afterwards, natural history was emphasized in schools and universities as an important area of study. And before that—for millennia—understanding the life we shared this planet with was essential knowledge. Bill McKibben states it perfectly. “You pass a hundred different plants along the trail—I know maybe twenty of them. One could spend a lifetime learning a small range of mountains, and once upon a time people did.”
Now, however, fewer students are being trained to identify plants and animals, to understand their life cycles, their unique ecological positions and interactions. As a result, even while our population is skyrocketing, there is now a far smaller proportion of human beings with the ability to recognize, let alone understand, a significant number of the living things we share this planet with. At a time when conservation of biodiversity is most urgent, we are losing much of our capacity to train and employ people with the right knowledge to sustain Earth’s ecosystems.
Why does it matter? If we know something, if we’ve grown up with it, engaged with it, we’re more likely to care about it. But if we’re not familiar with the plants and animals around us, then we won’t recognize when they disappear. We won’t make the changes needed to sustain them. Ignorance breeds indifference. The less we know, the less we notice, the less we care, and it’s a downward cycle. We’re already losing our natural neighbors, eroding the ecological processes that sustain life on this planet, and in the end it will come back to bite us.
However, each of us, you and I, can start turning the cogs in reverse. We can get to know the living things in our own communities, and if we share these things with children, we’ll all benefit. Playing in nature, whether young or old, stimulates a sense of wonder, creativity, imagination—and it helps us develop and nurture a sense of place. Taking the time to notice and experience nature, even urban remnants, even the tiniest patches of garden, helps us realize (and remember) that we’re part of everything, made of the same elements as earth, water, air and all living things. We’re all just pieces of the greatest puzzle, and we need to pay attention to how the pieces fit.
For children, pockets of nature render a canvas for countless types of creative play—opportunities for control and mastery, construction of special spaces, manipulating loose parts, moving in a wide variety of ways, taking risks, solving problems, and finding stillness. In the words of Stephen Kellert, Ph.D., “Play in nature, particularly during the critical period of middle childhood, appears to be an especially important time for developing the capacities for creativity, problem-solving, and emotional and intellectual development.”
In this, it seems the Scandinavians have gotten it right. The Norwegians have a word, Friluftsliv, which translates to “free air life”—a concept that promotes direct experience in nature. In Norwegian culture it is viewed as a prerequisite for learning. The link between nature and learning is also emphasized in Finland’s education system. And it’s an informed approach. A growing body of research has shown that multisensory experiences in nature help build the cognitive constructs necessary for sustained intellectual development. Finland consistently ranks in the top three countries worldwide for academic performance (the United States ranks far below at 20 according to recent United Nations Study). Finland pays higher teacher wages, allows more independence for teachers, has shorter school hours and emphasizes the value of unstructured outdoor play time.
We also know that spending time in nature enhances well-being and provides positive mental health benefits. Time and again, research has shown that nature-based experiences reduce anxiety and stress, improve self-esteem, mitigate depression, alleviate attention disorders, and even lead to positive behavior changes.
How can spending time in nature help with all these things? In nature we tend to engage in the types of activities and thought processes that enlist and strengthen the brain’s right hemisphere, and this has been shown to restore harmony to overall brain function. It helps to think of the brain as being capable of two types of attention—directed attention and involuntary attention. Our culture has become more and more focused on directed attention, leaving less time for involuntary attention.
Why does this matter? Directed attention is what our kids use for hours at school or while doing homework. It’s important, but it causes fatigue, and too much directed attention leads to agitation, impulsiveness, irritability and difficulty concentrating. Involuntary attention, on the other hand, is more automatic and can be thought of as fascination. Involuntary attention is what we often experience in the outdoors, and it gives our brains a much-needed break from the rigors of directed attention and helps restore brain performance. In fact memory and attention span have been shown to improve by an average of 20% after just one hour of interacting with nature.
I think most of us in the modern world could use an extra dose of involuntary attention in our daily lives—and we can find it by walking in the woods, growing a garden, watching the sunset… getting mud on our feet. Even though 98% of us now live in cities, we can find, create and cultivate the pockets of nature around us. We can share these places with the kids we care about—and if we do they will benefit! So will we.
Are you looking for natural spaces near your home? Check out this Where to Go site from Discover the Forest or this Nature Findsite from the National Wildlife Federation.
J.S. Kapchinske is the author of Coyote Summer.