I'm currently reading a book called, "Last Child in the Woods," by Richard Louv which addresses what the author is calling a "nature deficit" plaguing today's children who spend far more time in front of electronic screens than they do in unstructured time outdoors. Growing up, I was outside eating toast at the crack of dawn and stayed out until dark--coming inside ONLY to eat and use the bathroom. But our world is changing. This marks the first generation of children who will grow up with few familial ties to the land, meaning, that most of them do not have parents or grandparents who farmed or lived in rural areas. Even children's time is at a premium and what little of it is spent outside is usually in some type of organized sports program, not in exploring or random play. The Great Outdoors is being choked out by Wii and IPads and Netflix.
I spent this afternoon outside with 18 children exploring and documenting our discoveries on One Mile Prairie. We identified lavender wild asters, burgundy-stemmed turkey-foot grass, and white wild yarrow. We climbed a hill and measured temperatures and wind speeds high on the trail, and counted mallards and flocks of teal on the marsh below. Kids took out their journals and sketched goldenrod, milkweed, and cattails. They shaded in colors of the sky and pointed out various cloud forms. We purposely listened and recognized the sounds of crows, chickadees, killdeer, and simply enjoyed the rustle the wind made as it passed through the tall grass we were sitting in. Bees and dragonflies with iridescent wings zipped around us while franklin gulls wheeled in aerial patterns high over our heads. In the air was a hint of wild sage, the light musty scent of the waning marsh, and the sun warming dry foliage. We poked in the dirt with our fingers and pencils to expose small spiders, crickets, and grasshoppers. We loaded the bus 90 minutes later hot, sweaty, and thirsty. Was this time well spent? Yes. Educational? Absolutely. We need to reawaken a sense of WONDER in our children and erase the word "boring" from their vocabularies. Everything around us does not have to exude flashing lights, bells, and whistles to be interesting and appealing to our innate longing for the natural world. But we need to be taught, perhaps retaught, to pay attention to nature's subtleties in spite of our sensory-overloaded urban environment.
As Christians, this speaks to us on an even deeper level. "Be still," we are exhorted by our Creator. "And know that I Am God." He calls us away to quietness where we can appreciate the miracles of life all around us, a place where we can hear His soft, small voice.
What ideas do you have for getting kids to spend more time outside in unstructured play? How is your children's relationship to the outdoors different from what you experienced as a child?