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What the City Could Be Doing to a Child's Psyche

Many parents that I speak to have a level of disconnection with nature, some bordering on Nature Deficit Disorder, or NDD, a term coined by journalist Richard Louv to describe the lack of nature experience among today's youth.
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Me and nature? Let's just say that I had to work for the relationship. Growing up on Long Island, NY in the 1970s, I attended a private elementary school made of cinder block construction. Our "playground" was an ugly asphalt parking lot adjacent to a small wooded area of about 400 square feet, of which we were not allowed to enter. Our nature education, at least to my memory, consisted on an Arbor Day tree planting one year.

With so little support on my nature experience in school, the next most important source of knowledge is the family, right? Well, not in my case. My parents, both recent "immigrants" from the Bronx, were no source of nature education. It was generational. Growing up in the big city, their parents had no knowledge of the natural world to provide for their children. So I needed to break the vicious cycle.

Sadly enough, my childhood was typical among my contemporaries. Many parents that I speak to have a level of disconnection with nature, some bordering on Nature Deficit Disorder, or NDD, a term coined by journalist Richard Louv to describe the lack of nature experience among today's youth. They have little awareness of the natural world, and some even prefer manmade environments (aka air conditioning and sterile spaces).

Fortunately for me, as a child my best friend's family were campers. They invited me to my first camping trips on the east end of Long Island, and I've done it ever since. I even introduced my Flatbush, Brooklyn-raised husband to camping on a trip to Acadia National Park in Maine (a funny experience that is another story).

Raising our children, we did not want them to have the nature-deprived childhood that we felt we had, so we became "campers" and hikers. Family trips were to diverse places, like the Blue Ridge Mountains and Hawaii Volcano National Park, Zion and Bryce and the Finger Lakes region in New York. My son, as soon as he was of age, joined the Boy Scout organization as a Tiger, then Cub Scout. And proudly, he is now applying for his Eagle Scout rank, my husband alongside him for the entire journey as a scoutmaster. And now, he wants to be a forest ranger, and we're looking for colleges in some of the places we've journeyed to together on our family trips.

My daughter's most poignant memory of camping is the view of the night sky in New Hampshire when you just cannot believe the number of stars in the sky. She wanted to be a cosmologist for a bit.

I am a volunteer at Sweetbriar Nature Center in Smithtown, N.Y., not so much as a naturalist or wildlife rehabilitator, but I use my office skills to help them raise much-needed money. However, my work there exposes me to the natural world and knowledge that being with educators can bring. In fact, I am very proud that I know about the amazing antics of the kill deer to steer people away from their baby chicks! And about what to do when a baby bird falls out of his nest -- I know that, too!

But I know that there is so much more to know. I only wish I learned it as a child.

The Change

As naturalist and activist Rachel Carson said half a century ago, "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."

The decline must have started somewhere around my generation. We had some access to nature, but not enough. Many of us had no such adults with the knowledge or time to share the natural world with us. And ever since, these newer generations have become more technology-obsessed and parents have become more fearful of the outdoors and the dangers it can bring. From West Nile virus to stranger-phobia, our children are left to their own devices (aka video games) safely indoors.

The outcome of this disconnection and resulting NDD is beautifully documented by Richard Louv in his book "The Last Child in the Woods." Richard provides a litany of physical, mental and social ills due to NDD, including obesity, diabetes, ADHD, allergies and asthma and even depression.

If you are one of those people that feel we need to experience the worst before we can change society, then we may be at the critical juncture point now. Lots of people, from all walks of life, are waking up to the fact that NDD is a serious concern for our children, adults, culture and the planet. Hosts of organizations have embraced the need for education and resources for those most in need: the public and private education system, libraries and even families.

The Children & Nature Network (founded by Richard Louv), The Arbor Day Foundation and The Wildlife Federation are but a few of the national organizations that dedicate resources to provide information on how to connect our children with the natural world. And there are many local organizations as well.

Outdoor classrooms are just one, very effective tool to introduce children to the wonders of the natural world in fun and engaging environments. Eschewing the traditional playground of structured play (swings, slides, etc.), they incorporate features that allow children to dig in dirt, play with water and use their own imagination to "construct" their own worlds.

Local nature centers, such as Sweetbriar Nature Center on Long Island, are stepping up their efforts to help parents participate in their children's nature orientation. Parents learn what they never did (like me!) and can nurture their children's wonder of the earth and all of its inhabitants.