It is odd to live in an age of adventure travel and new age spirituality that praises the mountains and beaches while we are giving our children Xboxes rather than encouraging them to play outside. It is equally peculiar that so many people praise nature then wander off to consume the experience rather than to stand in awe of its’ geography or more importantly impart to their children the sacredness of God’s grandeur. (One would think that the “spiritual but not religious” crowd could at least get that one right.)I have recently started Richard Luov’s The Last Child in the Woods and already his accounting is very sad. To this point Luov does take some shots at development that has reduced the size of nature, but he also does not let families off the hook saying that there was a time when any empty field or open space became a child’s Eden and those places do continue to exist. And in America, they exist in abundance. That we do not encourage our children to indulge in this abundance is sad indeed.
Perhaps all is not lost though. I recently finished Ken Burn’s series The National Parks: America’s Best Idea. (I think it is impossible for this most American of documentarians to make a bad production.) Toward the conclusion of the series Dayton Duncan, who influenced Burns in creating the series, related the story of taking his family through the national parks that line the Rockies from Arizona to the Canadian border (over the course of several vacations.) The last park visited was Glacier where he made his children keep a diary of their experiences. On the day his family drove Going to the Sun Road, he and his son went on a buddy hike near Hidden Lake. That night in his journal, his son wrote “this was the most exciting day of my life, my dad and I climbed a glacier and saw a family of mountain goats.”Though the accounting was from years ago, it does say there must still reside in our consciousness a reverence for nature and a desire that our children know the awe of creation and the power of Eden’s play. And it does not take bisecting GNP on Going to the Sun. Some of my fondest memories were making a ditch near an open field in New Jersey an entire world with my friend Barry. It helped that we imagined that the foot of sand that lined what was actually a dirty drainage ditch was a pool of quicksand that could easily drag us to our deaths. My point is that if one has the means they should take their children to the alpine tundra, but if they cannot, children if encouraged to play, will turn a grey snow bank in a Chicago parking lot into a glacier.
But it is also true we are losing our way. The erosion of the family and the hectic nature of our own schedules have made it easier for computers, game systems, and television to foster the imagination of our children. We may be quick to decry these things, but it means little if we are not saying, “go outside and play.” And even if we do take our children into the world to see the great and awe-filled things, it means nothing if we do no teach and model the power of play and the experience of nature. A dirty two and a half foot high ditch in New Jersey every day after school is better than staring at the Grand Canyon if that experience is only about seeing one more thing to check off the list.
Eventually the Luov book promises to take us to that place where we can be in our world and be like the Duncan family. He has already demonstrated in a small way that the problem does not rest in our children’s psychology or even in the technical world, where technology is kept in perspective. In the second chapter Luov tells of working with a group of parents who had “gamer” children. The children were made to go outside for two hours to play. They protested making boredom their chief argument, but these parents were told to act like parents. (The kids didn’t have an option.) You already know what comes next. The children return considerably more than two hours later as they had lost track of time “having fun.” Now I only have to finish my read to see how Luov says that this thing can be born again in society at large. Perhaps if this can be done, our society can end its self-imposed exile from Eden.
Note: Picture is of unused playground equipment at Sawyer Ludwig Park in Marion Ohio. It is an expansive enough park and a good place to walk and think undisturbed particularly and sadly because it is rare to see a child or family there.