Best that I didn’t write this yesterday, since actual Earth Day is a time to be away from computers and such. That said, its coming/going reminds us of many things: recycling, polar bears, turning off the water while brushing teeth, the Lorax – the latter hopefully implying unplugged story time on carbon-neutral laps, not the movie, but I digress…
Though I have lived and hiked in the mountains and other wild places, I did not grow up especially wilderness-y. Our family tent was pitched in suburban, metropolitan Kentucky, and neither trekked, spelunked, nor did any actual camping. Wilderness, to me, was my neighborhood, and it seemed wild enough. We hiked to the creek (a drainage culvert), played in construction site dirt- and sand piles, rode bikes in roadless areas (mostly neighbor yards), got stung by bees and ants, and caught/released fireflies and turtles. Though they were loving and involved, my parents only rarely had the vaguest idea where I was most of the time. This was normal.
Flash forward to the new millennium. It is a different age, perhaps even a different planet. Most of my 30- and 40-something parent cohort recall similar wild, unplugged childhoods and wonder where they went. Was there a critical extinction event where all of a sudden such stuff seemed dangerous? No way it became boring, but did we invent something so incredibly alluring that it abruptly faded? Was it an evil, sanitized plot cooked up by Apple, Nintendo, and Baby Einstein? A media meteor strike?
Likely a combination of things, though said meteor is a key driver. New technologies. Parents enchanted by Atari now handing over iPads. 24-hour cable news and fears it fuels. Increased, if misplaced, academic pressures stoked by the Smart Baby Industrial Complex. Germs.
Camping is still not a big part of my life. The backyard is still my primary wilderness (though fortunately there are no construction sites or culverts nearby). And I, too, use far too much media. That said, some of my fondest recent memories involve simple walks with my children out there, esp during inaugural, ambulatory 1 year-old Springs. Pauses to pick dandelions and marvel at their tufts, cries of “bood!” witnessing a bird, turning over rocks looking for “pedes” – my youngest daughter’s term for centipedes, extended to any creepy crawler. Flashes of newness and excitement. Holding dimpled hands. Gazing at the sky. Priceless, evocative stuff, exceeding any ranking Amazon or the iTunes store could devise.
Of course, emails pile up during such time together, text messages to send/review, websites to browse…
Are they really important?
Maybe along with care for the Earth itself, Earth Day can remind us of the importance of treasuring these intimate rituals, where it’s not only alright to slow down and take a walk outside with a child, it’s what life’s all about. A perfect time to unplug, not only from nutty shows and videos about nature, but even from perusing blogs about the environment in peril, especially since nurturing the next generation of naturalists requires a deep-rooted sense of connectedness and concern that only such primary experiences provide.
And it’s best to start young, during those first three years, when both parent and child can be inspired – and re-inspired – together.
As for learning – a major collaborator in the nefarious plot to bring children inside – it’s important to remember that the outdoors offers one of the most robust curricula and classrooms yet devised. The process of naming each fascinating creature (“pedes,” “boods”), noise, or object introduces an expanding ecosystem of new words. The excitement – reality – of the moment, helps etch these into memory, exceeding what any rote flashcard could hope for. Navigating uneven terrain and manipulating natural objects enhances motor skills. Observing behaviors and phenomena nurture young scientists and hypothesis testing. Assessing unfamiliar situations and objects helps develop judgment: safe or not, edible or not, mud or poo? Intimate time together provides a sense of love and unity that is impossible to match, even for the most adorable, award-winning cartoon or video creatures. And perhaps most of all, such real-world adventure reinforces a sense of belonging in the world, tapping into hardwired instincts deep within us.
So let’s do it! Go play! Er, we are go playing, right?
Hiking to new, yet related, terrain. Some medical stuff: According to a recent, large study of US families in the Archives of Pediatrics & Adolescent Medicine, only 51% of preschool-age children are taken outside to play at least once a day by a parent. Only 44% of mothers and 24% of fathers reported taking their child outside to play at least once a day. Children were more likely to play outside if they had regular playmates in the neighborhood and if their parents exercise regularly, i.e. are good role models. Lowest rates were for girls (fueled by a perception that boys need more rough-and-tumble play), nonwhite children, and those in daycare. Reasons were themes and variations of busy parental schedules, logistics/access, and outsourcing, i.e. a misperception that ample outdoor play is provided at school and daycare.
Unfortunately, a different, recent study in the journal Pediatrics found that activity levels at childcare are also quite low, preschoolers rarely achieving the 60-90 minutes of recommended moderate-to-vigorous physical activity during the childcare day. Average outdoor time in the sample was 10-15 minutes. Reasons cited were in 3 broad categories: injury concerns, a focus on academics (italics intended – yes, we are talking about preschoolers) over outdoor play, and financial constraints. Ironically, a related observation is that concerns about injury have fueled a trend towards making playgrounds overly safe, and thus inadequately interesting and/or challenging – a.k.a. boring – to promote vigorous play.
This outdoor play deficiency – Richard Louv famously coined the term “Nature Deficit Disorder” – is especially concerning and unfortunate given the numerous, documented health benefits of such activity, ranging from lower risk of obesity and mental health problems, to a protective role vs myopia. The equally important, if harder to quantify, spiritual, cognitive, and emotional benefits are also vast, including instilling a genuine sense of wonder, greater self-confidence and risk assessment, creativity, and sense of connectedness with the natural world. And, as stressed in multiple older posts: none of the “educational” electronic media marketed to young children has been shown to teach or inspire anything except using more of it, and surely is not the stuff of treasured memories.
Back to the first study, which offered this call to action:
“As parents are the most important role models and decision makers for their preschoolers, they need to be aided and empowered to provide ample outdoor active play opportunities for their young children.”
Translated: it’s up to us parents to recall our own childhoods, unplug, and get out there! There are too many enduring reasons not to. May your search for ‘pedes be fruitful and fun. Happy Earth Day!
Share some of your favorite memories of your childhood wilderness – and some with your own children!