I just finished re-reading Richard Louv's "Last Child in the Woods: Saving Our Children From Nature-Deficit Disorder"... wow. It made the headlines a couple years ago, but is worth revisiting periodically for myself and my husband, especially as we make our family decisions about how we spend our free time. I originally picked up a copy at my local library after hearing it mentioned in some of my ADHD research. The premise of the book is that we, and our children in particular, are quickly losing an appreciation for, and involvement in, nature. We spend less time outdoors, and our children are losing valuable experiences and growing opportunities by being deprived of nature. A few things that stood out to me:
• 40% of American elementary school have eliminated or considered eliminating recess
What? Wow. I didn't realize it had gotten that extreme. I mean, I've heard the stories and am constantly amazed by how little movement our children get at school. But I didn't realize it was at 40%. At one school I worked, the kids who were "bad" and "acted out" in class (incidentally, these kids also usually had a diagnosis of ADHD or were labeled in some way), had to stand at the wall for the entire recess. Now, that seems like a great way to get some of that overactive energy out, doesn't it? And then we can send them back into class to try and try again. Not fair to the child, or to the teachers trying so desperately to serve all their students.
• Each hour of TV watched per day by preschoolers increases by 10 percent the likelihood that they will develop concentration problems and other symptoms of attention-deficit disorders by age seven
Well, there you go. I have already made my stance clear about screen time and television, but this is just another example of how computers, televisions, etc., are not appropriate for little brains. There is so much learning that occurs with hands-on experience.
• Louv also talks about the rise in depression that occurs from a childhood spent without true experiences in nature. The emotional resilience that comes from learning who you are in a larger world is an important piece of neurological growth. He gives many examples of children finding a quiet spot in nature to reflect on their individuality. Children also use nature to help manage the stresses in their life... Finding a place to decompress and be calm in the natural world is important.
I look at my daughters and our own backyard. Can I give them that nature experience they need? We have parks and greenspace nearby. My husband and I make weekend hikes and park outings a priority. Our metro area may be high-stress and fast-paced, but many parent are involved in finding outlets for their children and taking a good, hard look at the daily stressors. But I look worry about our system-wide policies, especially for the kids I have served in more urban settings. Are we robbing them of recess time? Obesity, depression, attention-deficit disorders... all run rampant through our schools. Do their families have the resources to access open space? How can we support them, not just individually and with one-on-one support, but on a grander scale? How can we give them that experience in the outdoors they so desperately need?
Anyway, heavy thoughts to ponder. The book is a must-read if you are a parent. You can check out Richard Louv's entire website here: http://richardlouv.com/
My next post tackles the ability of our children to self-regulate, and how we as parents are a part of this calming process. The first step towards communication and learning is to have an attentive and engaged child. The overlap between self-regulation and time in nature is noteworthy, and I know many children who absolutely need that walk in their neighborhood, that run across a field, that hike up a nearby hill, in order to find that sense of focused self.
*A third connection of interest to me is to the heavy press our gut bacteria has been getting lately. Turns out exposure to germs, especially those found in good, clean dirt, is healthy for our skin biome and possibly our gut bacteria (although our gut bacteria is composed of different little guys than those found in the dirt). We know children with learning difficulties often have sensitive stomachs and a decreased repertoire of healthy gut flora. The skin biome might also be sensitive? It is interesting to think of the connection between all these things in our modern life. I'm looking forward to the research keeping pace with the hypotheses being made in the more popular press. Until then, I think taking a walk in the woods and using it as a chance to connect with your family or listen to the sounds around you is a good first step.