If a child is to keep alive his inborn sense of wonder, he needs the companionship of at least one adult who can share it, rediscovering with him the joy, excitement, and mystery of the world we live in.
       Rachel Carson, The Sense of Wonder

In 2005 Richard Louv published an alarming book called Last Child in the Woods: Saving our Children from Nature-Deficit Disorder.  Six years later nothing has changed.  Louv’s book was meant to be the Silent Spring for the 21st century, but it may end up being more like Walden—a transformative book little appreciated by the public until many generations later.  That is unfortunate as “nature-deficit disorder” may be our most pressing environmental problem of this century.

Like all alarm calls, Louv’s thesis is simple.  Louv claims that today’s youth spend far less time outdoors in unstructured play than previous generations.  This has made them fatter, more depressed, and less connected to the general environment.  We have raised a new generation that is almost umbilically connected to electric sockets.  Although largely anecdotal in nature, most of our daily experiences reinforce Louv’s critique. 

I won’t bore you with statistics but consider this snapshot of modern childhood.  The average American child spends on average 7 hours and 38 minutes in front of a screen every day.  For the 67% of children who spend any amount of time outdoors, this leaves around 2 hours a day, much of it arranged around structured sports like soccer or baseball.  The results are all around us as 17% of American children aged 2 to 19 years are obese and 4% are severely obese.  Childhood obesity has doubled over the past 30 years for preschoolers and adolescents, and more than tripled for children aged 6 to 11 years olds. We may be raising the first generation in our history whose lifespan actually shrinks.  We also may be raising the first generation so disconnected from the natural world that they lose interest in preserving it.  Both are horrific outcomes that require drastic measures.

Lest you think I am lecturing, I write as a fellow sinner.  I have three young children who spend far less time outdoors than I did as a child (although more time outdoors than the pathetic national average).  As a child I used to spend whole summers fishing or playing pick-up games in the park, something not even remotely in my children’s experience.  Like everyone else I can blame work, the heat, changing lifestyles, stranger danger, and a cornucopia of other excuses.  But that doesn’t make my children any happier or healthier.  As parents (or even adults just interested in the next generation) we need to accept some hard realities and act upon them.

First, we need to accept that current policies are not working for our children.  Promotional campaigns to get kids outdoors, sports, and well-intentioned voluntarist programs are not having any effect.  If they were working there would be no need for this column.

Second, we need to add an outdoors element to our school curriculum, where kids spend most of their weekdays.  Our attempt to recreate a 15th century Confucian scholar system teaching students to pass standardized tests has not done much for their outdoor experiences, but has led to the increasingly threatened extinction of recess.  Time outdoors is critical for students (and teachers) and an important lesson that has fallen out of the curriculum.  A LEED certified environmentally designed school is all well and good, but arguably a large green playground is more useful for youths.  (The incredibly shrinking playground is another sad educational phenomena.)  Likewise school gardens can be a great educational tool as long as the students have time to explore and play in them.  Otherwise they are Potemkin villages masking increasing insularity.

Third, we need to let our kids be primitives in the summer.  Homo sapiens have spent 200,000 years living largely outdoor lives.  At least let our children enjoy this evolutionary heritage for 2 months of the year.  Send them to an outdoor summer camp or go tent camping with them in one of our nearby wild areas—anything that does not involve electronics or outlets.  Let them rediscover that they are evolved mammals who are predisposed to explore and enjoy the outdoors.  Most young children inherently feel this, but we effectively let this love of nature (“biophilia”) atrophy by the teenage years.

Fourth, we need to throw out the video games and television.  Now I loved both as a child, but there were technological and fiscal limits in my youth.  Many years ago video games cost a quarter and we only had one TV and two stations—with my parents’ viewing habits firmly in control.  Nevertheless I watched as much TV as I could and played as many video games as I could afford and then (only then) did I go outdoors.  With these limits removed today our kids behave like I would have had I known cable or Playstation—they spend most of their day in front of a screen.  This is no surprise.  Television networks and video game manufacturers are expressly in the job of luring and addicting young people to their products (much as the cigarette manufacturers of old) and they are extremely successful at it.  That is what it is, but it does place a premium on parents to monitor and control these addictive habits.  Just as we would not give our kids a pack of Marlboros and a six-pack every day, we are doing them no favors by providing unlimited access to the screen.  Adults may (or may not) have the wisdom to moderate their vices, but our laws and culture assume that the young do not yet have the wisdom to do this on their own.

Finally, make the outdoors a treat not a threat.  There are, of course, all sorts of undesirables outdoors from drunks to deer ticks and the fear of outdoors has never been so prevalent.  And yet, it seems painfully clear that the consequences of an insular sheltered life are much more dangerous physically, mentally, and environmentally.  If the outdoors is perceived through a parent’s eyes as primarily a place for sunburn and Lyme disease than children will also see it that way.  To borrow a phrase from Rachel Carson our job as parents is to reawaken a “sense of wonder” in the natural world.  Teaching a child about the wonders of nature can also beneficially reawaken that wonder in ourselves.  That should be our goal as guides to the outdoors and to a more balanced life.

I apologize if this column has been unduly curmudgeonly.  There are many things to disagree with in my suggestions and I suspect many will indeed disagree.  That is fine, but at least this will lead to thoughtful decisions.  Too much of our treatment of youth and the outdoors is based on thoughtlessness and inertia.  The decline of outdoor experiences has occurred gradually and, as such, we have been largely unaware of a dramatic decline in our youths’ affinity towards the outdoors.  Now that we know about it, it is incumbent upon all of us to do something about it or ultimately bear the responsibility for future generations who neither enjoy nature nor mourn its loss.

Mark Madison teaches environmental history, environmental ethics, and environmental film at Shepherd University.