Unstructured play in the out of doors is a gift most adults growing up in Maine, or other rural states, have been privileged to experience. However, this is often not true for the children and youth currently growing up in Maine or elsewhere.
In his most recent book, Last Child in the Woods, Richard Louv, a nationally noted child advocate, quotes from an interview with a 4th grader:
“I would rather play indoors, because that’s where the outlets are.”
This is a sad commentary on how disconnected many of our children are from the out of doors. As a result of this growing disconnection, our children are not benefiting from the teachings that unstructured play in the natural world has to offer:
- The natural order and pace of change
- Silence, stillness, peace
- Playing with the power of wind, rain, and other elements
- Observation of life and death
- Companionship of friends; communication and cooperation
- Team building and leadership, independent of adults
- Balance, agility, movement and physical challenges
- Slower pace and rhythm
- Exercising imagination and creation
Our impulse as parents and care givers is, naturally, to blame the toys (and their makers) for the rise in our children’s interest in Game Boys, computers, Nintendo, TV, and other media. Most children today are reluctant to play outdoors without lots of props or electronic gadgetry, and so, as parents, the course of least resistance is to just surrender to their growing attachment to the indoors.
However, I would like to challenge us as parents and caregivers to look at which came first, the electronic toys, or our budding fear that our children might be harmed when outdoors? Several social conditions, and the fear they generate in parents, contribute to our desire to keep children close to home:
- A rise in child abductions in the last couple of decades
- Increased fear of germs, bacteria and diseases carried by insects and animals
- Urbanization; transient population; unknown neighbors
- Children home alone because of two working adults
Our fears have resulted in a trend to restrict the radius of our children’s outdoor play. This is not without justification; however, it is not without a price.
I agree with Dr. Louv’s suggestion that our children’s disconnection from the rhythm of nature is a root cause of the increase in children’s diagnoses of ADD, ADHD, and depression. In Maine alone, in 2004, there were 35,296 children between the ages of 6 and 17 who received treatment (as hospital outpatients) for mental health and substance abuse disorders. The majority of the diagnoses were for depression. That is a staggering number and it represents a rise of 41% since the year 2000. (Maine Kids Count, 2006) There appears to be a parallel between this increase in mental health issues and our children’s movement away from the natural world.
To reverse this trend we must lead our children back “into the woods” where they can plug into the natural order of life and living things and begin to reap huge rewards and benefits.
You might begin with these few suggestions:
- Be a model: rekindle your own child-like connection to the natural world; get excited again
- Develop your children’s natural curiosity (suggestion: stones or shells on the kitchen table for discussion @ dinnertime)
- Create a contest: who can identify an unusual item from the natural world?
- Challenge your children to spend a half hour outdoors each day with no props (including radios, Game Boys, bikes, scooters)
- Reward them: for their courage to be outdoors with no gadgetry
- Loosen up the family schedule; allow for unstructured time outdoors
- Work on your fears