The Truly Shocking Ramifications of Our Culture So Rich in Electronic Media and So Poor in Contact with Nature

This may be “preaching to the choir,” but if you’re already among the converted I hope you’ll help “spread the Gospel.”

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a creek flows through a snow-covered pine forest in Arizona

As people nationwide resolve to improve their lives, society has a huge problem facing its youngest members that we’re not addressing well. This root problem is the source of many of the most difficult problems that we constantly are trying to address: childhood obesity that has tripled in the past 30 years, rising rates of allergy, asthma, diabetes, and stress, the large-scale need for psychological medicine such as Ritalin and antidepressants, increased nearsightedness, and more anti-social behavior head that list, although be assured this is not all of them! How about increased dependence and emotional fragility in young adults due to parents who overschedule time and prevent the development of independence? They’re all connected and this problem is not new. It’s gotten serious because it’s developed gradually. The solution is basic: fundamental to the growing-up years. Believe it or not, 100 years ago Luther Burbank expressed it far better than I can:

Every child should have mud pies, grasshoppers, water bugs, tadpoles, frogs, mud turtles, elderberries, wild strawberries, acorns, chestnuts, trees to climb. Brooks to wade, water lilies, woodchucks, bats, bees, butterflies, various animals to pet, hay fields, pine cones, rocks to roll, sand, snakes, huckleberries, and hornets; and any child who has been deprived of these has been deprived of the best part of education.

He also said:

Listen patiently, quietly, and reverently to the lessons, one by one, which Mother Nature has to teach, shedding light on that which was before a mystery, so that all who will may see and know.

This perspective is akin to the Japanese expression kachou fuugetsu that translates literally to “flower, bird, wind, moon,” meaning “Experience the beauties of nature, and in so doing learn about yourself.”

a view of a birch or poplar forest in winter, looking skyward

The Kaiser Family Foundation’s 2010 report Generation M2, which updates earlier studies from 2004 and 1999, found that children ages 8 to 18 spend an enormous amount of time engaging with media and technology: on average, 53 hours a week, or 7 hours 38 minutes on a typical day–although that number is higher for minority children. If you count “media multitasking,” such as listening to music while browsing the web, Tweeting, or using Snapchat, this rate jumps to 10 hours 45 minutes a day. In response to the alarming rate of media consumption and the alarming lack of nature consumption, author Richard Louv created the term “nature deficit disorder” for his seventh book, Last Child in the Woods. Since the term itself presents too many problems, we shouldn’t use it. Once you’ve seen the evidence, it is easy to agree with his point that we lack a vocabulary adequate for expressing what a serious problem this has become.

a breathtaking view of forest with icy branches seen from a mountain top

There are solutions in the form of an alternate CNN, the Children and Nature Network and the Kids Gardening web site. Because adults are grown up, it’s easy for big people to neglect and ignore the mental and emotional benefits to kids of physical activity and free play, as Lev Vygotsky advocated 100 years ago. But doing them inside and outside is not the same.

The National Wildlife Federation recommends that parents give their kids a “green hour” every day. The purpose of this time is for unstructured play and interaction with the natural world. Acting to develop an interest in nature then, and a willingness to let kids roam free, become overlooked essential elements of how to be a good parent or grandparent.

A group of teenagers enjoy summer in the woods.

In the Urbana News-Gazette, Sandra Mason has lots of kid-friendly ideas for how to involve young people in gardening. One possibility she doesn’t mention is planting a tree on a child’s birthday and having it be “his” or “her” tree from then on, perhaps with a photo taken once a year as each of them grow. That connection certainly provides incentive to water it over the summer during a dry spell! And, moreover, learning how to take care of it and help it flourish. The good and bad of this idea is that it is limited in scale, but for some youngsters it can be just the kind of small step they need.

On a larger scale, we have only to look to the most progressive and environmentally-conscious state in the nation for a fine example of leadership. California’s 2006 Instructional School Gardens law has distributed $10,800,000 to 3,849 schools, with approximately 2/3 placed at the elementary level and 1/3 going to middle and high schools. The ten-year update was recently released. Although $4.2 million in funds was canceled in 2008 due to the state budget crisis and has not been renewed, the effort provides a model 49 other states should adopt and fund. There is a short summary PDF available here. Pity that Apple Corporation couldn’t have used 17 hundredths of a percent of its $24.5 billion at the time to help matters.

a basket of potatoes painted by Vincent Van Gogh in 1885
Basket of Potatoes (1885)
Vincent van Gogh

Amid these small potatoes and large potatoes we might as well mention the effort in England to get young people growing potatoes, which is fantastic because they’re so easy and because they’re an excellent source of potassium to help offset the effect of a sodium-rich diet.

From these initiatives taken at the state and national level, there are examples of promise down to the individual level. On the Kids are Heroes web site, a Cub Scout in Tennessee has been recognized for helping plant a butterfly garden. Perhaps if you know of similar projects, you can nominate them for recognition.

For teenagers and young adults, the videos of Huw Richards might speak to them better than the same information presented by an adult. In the Arizona Daily Sun, Cindy Murray explains how a walk in the woods can become a lesson in symbiosis suitable for opening the eyes and minds of teenagers. It’s true that roots don’t function alone; they often need beneficial bacteria and fungi! How many ordinary kids may not realize this connection between microscopic forms of life and large ones such as trees?
a view upwards into the intricate branches of a dormant, leafless tree against a neutral sky

The biggest lesson to take away from gardening as a hobby is accepting your circumstances and their limitations, as Mrs. Herman McKenzie explains in the weekly Northside Sun. The old expression says to “bloom where you’re planted,” or as writer and philosopher Allen Lacy puts it, “You garden where you are.” Working with what you have and accepting forces you cannot change are lessons very appropriate for young people of any age.

But Lacy would also warn you not to call gardening a hobby, and explain why: “Gardening is not a hobby, and only non-gardeners would describe it as such. There is nothing wrong with having hobbies, but most hobbies are intellectually limited and make no reference to the larger world. By contrast, being wholeheartedly involved with gardens is involvement with life itself in the deepest sense.” (Do you see why people like to read him?)

Gertrude Jekyll tells us, “The love of gardening is a seed once sown that never dies.” So many kids now grow up with so little exposure to nature, and THAT is the pattern of American life that needs so much to change. There are the children of city dwellers who may not even have land because they live in apartments, or suburban families who have a contract with a service to cut their lawn and would never consider doing anything outside when the house needs either heat or air conditioning. Then there are the families who want their kids to stay clean, or not go barefoot, or arrange their schedules with so many activities there isn’t time to work in the yard or walk through the woods–at least, not until after dark!

a lush green woodland scene
Into the Woods (1860)
William Richards

When neuroscientists and psychologists plus parenting experts such as Tina Payne Bryson and Janet Lansbury have a book to recommend, it just may be worth looking into in case that book contains something worthwhile. That description certainly fits Angela Hanscom’s Balanced and Barefoot, with a subtitle that tells a clear truth: How Unrestricted Outdoor Play Makes for Strong, Confident, and Capable Children.

But if you want this for yourself, or to give as a gift, you’re also likely to enjoy the evocative, poetic, and real memories of paleontologist Scott Sampson from his own childhood in How to Raise a Wild Child: The Art and Science of Falling in Love With Nature.

The problem that bothered Luther Burbank a century before today–at a time before television–has since been compounded by handheld phones that do far more than allow you to talk and “tablets” that are not the kind that slip down your throat to deliver medicine. Health involves a balance of activities and experiences, and with kids it can amount to not always keeping their clothes clean or not always setting up what they should do. And since when has any definition of health meant that boys and girls spend all their time cooped up inside?

In an old black-and-white photo, two boys, probably brothers, stand barefoot in a back yard with an old woman, probably their grandmother.

Some of the best parting thoughts on this topic come from the eloquent writings of Albert Camus. In “Summer in Algiers” (1955), he wrote, “If there is a sin against life, it consists perhaps not so much in despairing of life as in hoping for another life and in eluding the implacable grandeur of this life.” In 1938, he wrote, “Life can be magnificent and overwhelming–that is its whole tragedy. Without beauty, love, or danger it would be almost easy to live.” After the war, in 1948, he wrote, “We turn our backs on nature; we are ashamed of beauty. Humanity cannot do without beauty, and this is what our era pretends to want to disregard.” Read those out loud because they’re worth repeating!

Now on to the point: beauty, danger, and love are out there where they always have been. They’re just rarely encountered through the pixels of an electronic screen, aren’t they?

a girl sits outside reading in an orchard in bloom, surrounded by the white clouds of flowers in the branches
Orchard in Spring (1886)
Claude Monet
a girl or young woman stands in a garden surrounded by poppies in bloom
A July Morning (1899)
Daniel Knight

aspen trees with their yellow fall color against a brightly lit, sunny blue sky

a dramatic black and white image showing a stream flowing though a bare, wintry woods with patchy snow on the ground


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