When comparing today’s early childhood experience with that of one or more generations ago, we cannot help but notice a striking decline in the amount of time children spend immersed in unstructured outdoor play.
For those of us raised in the era free of modern technology, many an afternoon, weekend and summer were spent outdoors.
In his book, “Last Child in the Woods,” renowned journalist and author, Richard Louv, coins a term for a condition afflicting today’s generation, titled: “Nature Deficit Disorder.” In his book, Louv links this nature deficit with childhood obesity, depression and attention disorders. Louv makes a very strong case that nature is essential for healthy physical and emotional childhood development.
Having established that varied experiences are critical for brain development, we can begin to appreciate the value that nature might play in a child’s development. When compared to the simple, sterile, indoor environment, nature offers rich opportunities to activate countless areas of experience in the young brain.
When a child feels sand, dirt, water, grass, leaves, bark, sticks, petals, thorns, worms, sun, snow, and wind, they are experiencing textures, shapes, sounds and temperatures. They are learning about color and shadow and density. As they climb, duck, navigate around or over objects, they are learning to control their limbs and body. When they pick a flower, hold a roly-poly, break a tree branch, blow on a dandelion, run toward an animal…they learn cause and effect. When they build a fort, or a stone tower, or sharpen sticks into weapons, or bake a mud pie, they are training to be the next generation of engineers, chefs, interior designers. When they skip stones or throw sticks, they are learning the laws of physics. When they try to feed a lady bug, or nurse an injured rabbit back to health, they are cultivating kindness and empathy. When they explore and run and hide, they are developing a sense of independence and self-confidence. When they look for creatures in the clouds as they move in the sky, they are developing creativity and imagination. When they plant and nurture a seed, they are learning patience and grit. All the while, their bodies are getting stronger and healthier, through exercise, fresh air, and vitamin D. And they are developing a deep and rich appreciation for nature and the natural world.
Contrast this experience with that of a flat, smooth, fast-moving, one-dimensional screen, devoid of the smells, textures, sounds, and experiences, and we can begin to appreciate another factor that is, without a doubt, impacting the physical and mental health of our youth!