An oriole flew into an oleander bush across the street from my house the other day, right in front of me. I stood still in pure amazement. Sometimes it’s a swallowtail butterfly that stops me, or a purple orchid on a vine. Occasionally, I’ll spot a caterpillar chewing on a leaf or pause to admire the shape of a slash pine tree.
My children rarely notice these things. Despite my best efforts to get them outdoors and teach them what I can about nature, the truth is, they’re not as tuned in to the natural world as I wish they were.
“Well, mom,” explains my younger daughter, “we have school till 4, then there’s homework, piano practice, dinner, chores, and then it’s dark. When are we supposed to go out and ‘enjoy nature’?” She says that last bit sarcastically, as if I’m asking her to do something that’s a little strange anyway.
I’ve known kids who hate sand and others who squeal in terror at the sight of a wasp or spider. These children strike me as odd. Isn’t it more normal to love the beach and be indifferent to insects?
It should not be weird to go outside. And yet, for some kids, it is.
Just as the childhood obesity epidemic demonstrates a very real consequence to too much fast food and too little exercise, it may turn out that too little exposure to the natural world may be responsible for the epidemic rise in attention deficit and related disorders.
New research cited by author Richard Louv in his book, Last Child in the Woods: Saving Our Children from Nature-Deficit Disorder, indicates that symptoms of attention deficit disorder can be eased with more exposure to nature. He wonders whether the radical change in how children live — from being outdoors most of the time for thousands of years to indoors most of time just within the past few decades — can be blamed for many problems in children’s mental, spiritual and emotional health.
I applaud Louv’s effort to convince parents to make kids play outside. He’s supported by a national campaign from the National Wildlife Federation to get kids outdoors for a daily “green hour.”
But I think they face some tough challenges, not the least of which are urban-dwelling mothers who have no affinity for nature themselves. I know one mother who clearly detests the outdoors and has passed on her fears to her daughter, who will only go outside to play soccer on a groomed field or swim in a pool. She sees nature as dirty and unpleasant — not something you would voluntarily seek.
Love of nature should be nurtured in kids, right along with teaching them to read and count and feeding them their veggies. And, since kids don’t roam the way they used to, parents need to give kids lots of chances to see what’s out there. That’s easy to do in Florida.
You can camp, even if it’s just at Fort Wilderness in Disney World. You can take a canoe out on a lake or canal. You can stroll along the beach and pick up shells. You can visit a nature center. You can go hiking just about anywhere you go on vacation.
I’m hoping that one day experiences like these will have an impact and my daughters will start opening their eyes to the beauty that’s right outside their door. Until then, I’ll just enjoy the wonders alone.
[A version of this entry appeared as the Editor's Note in South Florida Parenting, April 2007]
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