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Children in the Wild
Much has been written about the importance of exposing children to nature. Books such as Last Child in the Woods, by Richard Louv, have revolutionized how we see television, the internet, and video games by presenting convincing data that illustrate how exposure to the outdoors is crucial for the physical, emotional, mental, and even spiritual development of children. I aim to summarize “nature deficit disorder” and push you to spend more time outside with your children, brothers, sisters, cousins, and friends.
The Nature and Self-Esteem Link
The plain and simple truth is that children need regular exposure to the natural world. Such exposure leads to reduced stress; increased happiness, self-worth, and motivation; and improved physical fitness, balance, coordination, and even brain development. Beyond all of that, spending time in the natural world satisfies a child’s need for autonomy. Though these benefits are widely publicized, nature and our children’s contact with it are diminishing rapidly. According to the Children and Nature Network, only 6 percent of children between the ages of nine and thirteen spend time outdoors in a typical week (2008). Instead of playing in the sunshine, the average North American kid spends more than thirty hours a week watching television (Gold, 2009). The internet, video games, cell phones, and other technological devices absorb even more time. While the United States currently leads the world in nature-deficient children, this is quickly becoming a global epidemic.
It can be tempting to scapegoat parents, the media, and all the other usual suspects that take our attention away from shrubs, trees, and grass, but the reality is that we are all to blame. Technology is captivating. As we advance, we prioritize our new electronic devices over nature. To some extent this is unavoidable, as we live in a modern age. It is important, however, to balance the time we spend plugged in with time in the great outdoors. Nature is simply irreplaceable. When we are outdoors, we connect to our deepest ancestral roots, and our instincts come alive. This cannot be achieved in the virtual realm. It can only be discovered in the wilderness.
For many of us, so much time has elapsed since we truly immersed ourselves in nature that it can feel intimidating or awkward to jump back in. But if you push yourself to go hiking, camping, or foraging, you’ll feel comfortable again in no time. Think back to a time when none of your friends owned cell phones. How were things different? How did you interact? What did you do together before you watched videos on YouTube or updated your Facebook status?
What I remember is that I spent more time outside connecting with my loved ones. My friends and I frequently met in the park and spent the bulk of our interactions in nature. Even as teens we didn’t feel too old to play in creeks and climb trees. We were not unique. I remember how the majority of the youth congregated in the plaza or the park after school and on weekends to hang out until their parents forced them to come inside for the night. All the time spent outdoors was restful and incredibly fulfilling. Today’s younger generations are losing touch with the wild, and it is up to us to jump-start that connection once more.
Foster a Deeper Sense of Present Moment Awareness and Appreciation of Nature
Foraging is a great way to immerse children of any age in the wilderness. Learning new plants is like meeting new friends. It expands the world by encouraging a person to notice tiny life forms. Nature itself is stimulating, fulfilling, and allows the imagination to come alive.
Make it a point to take your children outdoors and teach them about plants, animals, and everything else in nature. This may sound boring, but it’s not! When my family set out to hike the Pacific Crest Trail, we anticipated being very bored during our half- year hike. We loaded our backpacks full of cards, board games, and books to make it more interesting. Within a few days of starting the trail we got rid of all the entertainment, right down to the last card. Not only was it heavy and hard to carry, but our surroundings were so captivating that we had absolutely no desire to do anything but immerse ourselves in the wilderness around us. Even at the end of the trail, after spending six solid months playing in nature, I felt as though there was more to discover and learn.
If your children initially need additional incentive to play outside, come up with interactive games that require your kids to delve further into the outdoor world. For example, when I was a child, my mom used to challenge us to see who could collect the most blackberries in fifteen minutes. Such experiences are memorable and will vastly enrich a youngster’s life. If nothing else, spending quality time outdoors with loved ones will leave a silly grin on your child’s face.
From Wild Edibles: A Practical Guide to Foraging, with Easy Identification of 60 Edible Plants and 67 Recipes by Sergei Boutenko, published by North Atlantic Books, copyright © 2013 by Sergei Boutenko. Reprinted by permission of publisher. www.sergeiboutenko.com