Letting the natural world shape our human nature

by Jan Spann

Growing up in the 1950s in Conway, summers meant time outdoors, whether my sister or I wanted to be there or not. Mom would chase us outside after lunch where we were to stay until called home for supper. We found plenty to do in the neighborhood, as each of us had many friends within a few blocks. Hide and seek, exploring the woods or a game of softball kept us occupied and mostly out of trouble.

Today’s world contains busy streets and busier schedules, so many of today’s kids view nature through structured activities. A good read — “Last Child in the Woods” by Richard Louv — takes this topic head-on for these winter days. The book, subtitled “Saving Our Children from Nature-Deficit Disorder,” explores the increasing divide between youngsters and the natural world.

Even before I read Louv’s book, I had driven around Conway and contemplated how several spots that were deep in the woods in my childhood are now blended into our ever-growing city. There’s a still-wooded spot near the intersection of Meadowlake Road and Donaghey that was our Girl Scout summer day camp, where we trekked into the woods singing “Kumbaya.” What seemed so far out of town is now in the middle of bustling traffic and encroaching buildings.

When I visited my grandparents in Jacksonville, my cousins and I would traverse the fields behind the barn, gathering crickets and worms as we headed to the pond. I don’t think we ever caught fish but just enjoyed the outings. According to Louv, these experiences in nature help shape our health, social, psychological and even spiritual development. For generations, children have been hustled outdoors to explore and use their imaginations.

Today’s technology finds this generation of kids more in tune with electronics than nature. Experts say it’s too soon to evaluate what this change will mean to children and teens. New reports indicate that the blue light of smartphones mimics natural light so much that it is disrupting sleep patterns for those who use these gadgets in the hours before bedtime.

Are we teaching our children to dislike the sweaty, messy, buggy outdoor world? Are we too conditioned to air-conditioned environments? In the book’s introduction, Louv notes, “For a new generation, nature is more abstraction than reality. Increasingly, nature is something to watch, to consume, to wear — to ignore. A recent television ad depicts a four-wheel-drive SUV racing along a breathtakingly beautiful mountain stream — while in the backseat two children watch a movie on a flip-down video screen, oblivious to the landscape and water beyond the windows.”

Louv explains that research indicates our connection to technology and away from nature coincides with the rise in obesity, depression and attention disorders. “The physical exercise and emotional stretching that children enjoy in unorganized play is more varied and less time-bound than is found in organized sports. Playtime — especially unstructured, imaginative, exploratory play — is increasingly recognized as an essential component of wholesome child development.”

Today’s headlines remind us that we live in dangerous times with violence, child abductions and crimes too horrific to consider. Some of us become helicopter parents, hovering over our children, making sure that they and their environments are safe at all costs. But the reality is that these headlines are not the majority of our everyday lives, and we should not let these fears keep us — and our children — from experiencing the world around us.

Lenore Skenasky was dubbed the “World’s Worst Mom” in 2008 after her arrest for allowing her 9-year-old son to ride the subway home from school in Queens. While that may sound frightening to us in the 501, in her home turf this would be like letting our kids walk to the school bus stop, and her book (“Free-Range Kids: How to Raise Safe, Self-Reliant Children Without Going Nuts with Worry”) notes that we have become afraid of giving our children the freedoms that we had. Skenasky, a Yale graduate, has an upcoming talk show on Discovery Life, and her book has become a movement for childhood freedom (freerangekids.com).

Another complication to giving our children free range in their community is the reality that our cities are designed more for efficient car traffic than for citizen activity. When you compare old neighborhood composition to the new structured versions, you’ll find front porches and sidewalks inviting neighborly visits versus wider streets designed to move traffic from point A to point B. So how are kids supposed to play in the street safely when cars control the road?

Conway City Planner Wes Craiglow notes that as highly functional vehicle routes guide traffic throughout commercial, office and residential areas, we lose our connection to our natural environment. Instead, we drive to a local running trail or two hours to the mountains to run, walk and explore, even though those options could be integrated into our neighborhoods and communities.

“Nature stirs the human spirit and feeds our soul,” Craiglow said. “When a residential area exists in a vacuum separate from our work district, we miss the opportunity for these areas to thrive at all times of the day, and we drive ourselves from one area of our life to the next.”

Another of Richard Louv’s books (“The Web of Life: Weaving the Values that Sustain Us”) addresses the importance of connecting the various strands of our life. Learn more at childrenandnature.org.

Nature is our first classroom, and according to research, it should be the classroom we continue to visit throughout our lives. Start a community garden. Organize your neighbors to request a neighborhood park within walking distance. Start a nature adventure club. Go into the woods and listen.

Nature renews our spirit and helps us connect to that which is more infinite than ourselves. Maybe it’s not a coincidence that the same word that describes the natural world also defines our human spirit.