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Young people — the ones lucky enough to have attended a school, church, or other organized camp, or to have camped with their family or friends — can offer moving testimony to the power of experience in the natural world.
As I researched Last Child in the Woods: Saving Our Children From Nature-Deficit Disorder, one boy told me of the sensory awakening he experienced watching a campfire, "the red and orange flames dancing in the darkness, the smoky fumes rising up, burning my eyes and nostrils."
Camp Touches the Heart
In addition to exciting the senses, camp can touch the heart.
At a middle school in San Diego, a girl described the lasting impression of her camp experience atop San Diego County's Palomar Mountain. "My family is not one that believes in camping or spending time in the outside world," she told me. "The only time I can remember having lived in nature, in the open, was at sixth-grade camp. There, I was truly comfortable, walking down paths that weren't paved. I felt I truly belonged somewhere in the scheme of things." Even now, long after the fact, she conjures up that time in her mind. "Sometimes, I just want to get away from the world, so I dwell in nature through my thoughts and memories."
I was also impressed by the deep commitment of the adults who pass their sense of wonder in nature to the next generation.
Like many environmental educators, camp leaders, and conservationists, Madhu Narayan, a Girl Scout leader in San Diego, was shaped by her own childhood experiences in nature. She was just three months old when her parents, recent immigrants from India, took her camping for the first time. In later years, her parents drove across the West, camping as they went. Narayan figures her parents didn't have a lot of money and camping was an inexpensive way to see their nation of choice.
"We moved through days of beautiful weather, and then the rains came," she said. During a lightning storm, the wind blew away the family's tent, and they slept in the car listening to the banshees of wind and rain howl and crash through the woods.
Even now, at thirty, Narayan shivers as she tells this story.
As the Girl Scouts' outdoor-education manager for a sprawling region — covering the California counties of Imperial and San Diego — she wants to offer natural experiences to girls, but faces daunting challenges. The divide between past and future is evident at the Girl Scout camps in mountains east of San Diego: One is billed as traditional, with open-air cabins and tents hidden in the trees; the newer camp looks like a little suburbia with street lights.
"When I was a kid, you fell down, you got up, so what; you learned to deal with consequences. I broke this arm twice," said Narayan. "Today, if a parent sends a kid to you without a scratch, they better come back that way. That's the expectation. And as someone responsible for people, I have to respect that." Even so, she finds it strange and unfortunate that, because of parental concern about safety — and the fear of litigation — girls aren't allowed to climb trees at the camps.
The Fading of Nature/Child Relationships
Here is the disturbing, larger truth: For eons, human beings spent large portions of their childhoods playing in natural settings. But within a few decades, children have come to understand and experience nature in a radically different way from that of previous generations.
The polarity of the nature/child relationship has reversed. Today, kids are aware of the big-picture global threats to the environment, but their physical contact, their intimacy with nature, is fading. A child today can likely tell you about the Amazon Rain Forest — but will just as likely be hard pressed to describe the last time he or she explored the woods in solitude, or lay in a field and listened to the wind and watched the clouds move.
Academics — and most of the rest of us — assumed that the ancient relationship between children and nature would go on forever. Therefore, good longitudinal studies — ones to compare how much time succeeding generations played in nature — were not pursued. However, we do know what our eyes tell us; we know where children spend most of their time.
Generation M: Media in the Lives of 8-18 Year-Olds, a survey conducted by the Kaiser Family Foundation in 2005, revealed that children today are plugged into some kind of electronic medium an average of five-and-a-half hours a day — "the equivalent of a full-time job, and more time than they spend doing anything else besides sleeping (The Henry J. Kaiser Family Foundation 2005)."
Meanwhile, the UCLA Center on Everyday Lives of Families reports that during the week, parents and children are in constant motion, racing between school, games, shopping, work — and American kids spend virtually no time in their own yards. Such lives obviously leave little time for unstructured activities in nature.
Why has this change occurred so quickly?
I believe our society is teaching young people to avoid direct experience in nature. That lesson is delivered in schools, through families, even by organizations devoted to the outdoors — and has been codified into the legal and regulatory structures of many of our communities. Our institutions, urban/suburban designs, and cultural attitudes unconsciously associate nature with doom — while disassociating the outdoors from joy and solitude. Most housing tracts constructed in the past two to three decades are controlled by strict covenants that discourage or ban the kind of outdoor play many of us enjoyed as children. (One mother told me recently that not only had her community association outlawed tree houses, but it had banned chalk drawing on sidewalks by children.)
On top of all this, cable news and other outlets give unrelenting and repetitive coverage to a handful of tragic child abductions, conditioning parents to believe that child-snatchers lurk behind every tree. Conditioned fear spreads, despite the fact that child abductions by strangers are, in fact, growing rarer. Nationwide, 200 to 300 children were abducted by strangers in 1988, compared with 115 children in 1999 (out of a U.S. population of nearly 273,000,000 that year). By a wide margin, family members, not strangers, are the most common kidnappers (Congressional Report 2005).
In short, well-meaning public school systems, media, and parents are effectively scaring children straight out of the woods and fields.
The postmodern notion that reality is only a construct — that we are what we program — suggests limitless human possibilities. But as the young spend less and less of their lives in natural surroundings, their senses narrow — physiologically and psychologically. This reduces the richness of human experience and contributes to a condition I call "nature-deficit disorder." Let me stress that I use that term not as a medical diagnosis, but to serve as a description of the human costs of alienation from nature, including diminished use of the senses, attention difficulties, and higher rates of physical and emotional illnesses. This disorder damages children; it also shapes adults, families, whole communities, and the future of nature itself.
That's the negative side of the story. Yet, exciting new studies show us the benefits — biological, cognitive, and spiritual — when we engage with nature. Deficit is but one side of the coin; the flip side is natural abundance. By weighing the consequences of the disorder, we can become more aware of how blessed our children can be — biologically, cognitively and spiritually — through positive physical connection to nature. Indeed, the new research focuses not so much on what is lost when nature fades, but on what is gained in the presence of the natural world.
The Benefits of Exposure to Nature
For example, recent research suggests that exposure to nature can improve all children's cognitive abilities and resistance to negative stresses and depression (Kahn 1999; Wells and Evans 2003; Ulrich 1984; and Frumkin 2001).
Certainly camps, when sufficiently focused on the nature experience, bring such benefits to countless children. Studies of outdoor education programs geared toward troubled youth — especially those diagnosed with mental health problems — show a clear therapeutic value. This is a rediscovery, really. Camp programs have been used to facilitate emotional well-being since the early 1900s. According to one study, an increase in self-esteem was most pronounced for preteens, but was positive across all ages.
In 1994-95, the National Survey of Recreation and the Environment conducted a national study of 17,216 Americans; a 2001 analysis of data found that people with disabilities indicated levels of participation in outdoor recreation and adventure activities equal to or greater than people without disabilities. Other studies show that people with disabilities participate in the most challenging of outdoor recreation activities; they seek risk, challenge, and adventure in the outdoors just as do their contemporaries without disabilities (McAvoy 2001; Ewert and McAvoy 1987).
Everyone who lives with or works with children needs to know about these studies, and to alert themselves to the growing deficit of nature experience — and about the implications for our society as a whole. Healing the broken bond between our young and nature is in our self-interest; not only because aesthetics or justice demand it, but also because our mental, physical, and spiritual health depend upon it.
Reconnecting Children with the Outdoors
My call to reconnect children to nature is also an invitation to protect and nurture the spiritual lives of children and adults, and ultimately to protect the natural world by saving an endangered indicator species — the child in nature.
I am not suggesting that we bring back the free-range childhood of the 1950s. Those days are over. But, inspired by our deeper understanding of the importance of nature play to healthy child development and to a child's sense of connection to the world, we can be motivated to create safe zones for nature exploration.
We can preserve the open space in our cities and even design and build new kinds of communities using the principles of green urbanism. We can weave nature experiences into our classrooms and nature therapy into our health care system. As parents, grandparents, aunts, and uncles, we can spend more time with children in nature.
This is quite a challenge, one that ratchets up the importance of camps and camping. Arguably, no other institution has so much experience with the paradox that underlies this discussion: the counter intuitive but essential task of organizing unstructured activities in nature.
The great worth of outdoor education programs is their focus on the elements that have always united humankind: driving rain, hard wind, warm sun, forests deep and dark — and the awe and amazement that our earth inspires, especially during a human's formative years.
Don't Dilute the "Nature" Message
But let me suggest that nature experience at our nation's camps could be lost if nature camps allow their mission to become diluted, if they attempt to please everyone all the time.
Today, camps compete with any number of other institutions to provide services not directly related to nature: computer classes, weight-loss clinics, business seminars, and so on. These are important programs and will undoubtedly continue. But camps might well realize their greatest growth potential by providing families with more of what is so rarely offered elsewhere — direct experiences in nature. The potential for expanding this market will grow as parents learn more about the relationship between nature experience and healthy child development.
As I mentioned earlier, I have often been moved by the testimonials of those good people who, year after year, bring children to nature and nature to children. Every child deserves to experience the healing qualities of the natural world, yet even in San Diego County — the most biologically diverse region in the United States — too many children have never been to the mountains, or even to the ocean.
"In my first counseling job, with another organization, I took children with AIDS to the mountains who had never been out of their urban neighborhoods," Girl Scout leader Narayan told me. "One night, a nine-year-old woke me up. She had to go to the bathroom. We stepped outside the tent, and she looked up. She gasped and grabbed my leg. She had never seen the stars before. That night, I saw the power of nature on a child. She was a changed person."
"From that moment on, she saw everything, even the camouflaged lizard that everyone else skipped by. She used her senses. She was awake."
Given the growing nature deficit, I believe that offering children direct contact with nature — getting their feet wet and hands muddy — should be at the top of the list of vital camp experiences, stimulating a renewed shared purpose. It's time for a nature camp revival.
Adapted, with permission, from Last Child in the Woods: Saving Our Children From Nature-Deficit Disorder by Richard Louv. For more information about the book, go to www.richardlouv.com.
Richard Louv is a futurist and journalist focused on family, nature, and community. He is the author of seven books, including, most recently, Last Child in the Woods: Saving Our Children From Nature-Deficit Disorder. Among his other books are Childhood's Future, The Web of Life, Fly-Fishing for Sharks: An Angler's Journey Across America, and America II. He is a columnist for The San Diego Union-Tribune and has written for The New York Times, The Washington Post, The Christian Science Monitor, and other newspapers and magazines.
Originally published in the 2006 January/February issue of Camping Magazine.