The wildest place my best friend Susan Sapper and I could think of was “the creek,” a concrete-lined drainage ditch behind her house in our new development in Raytown, Mo. The water it collected fed into a slate-bottomed tributary of the Little Blue River. I once found a hand mirror half-buried in the mud along its banks that we decided belonged to Sacagawea.
Lawrence parent Sandy Beverly and her best friend played along a “creek” very like mine. But times have changed. With so many electronic alternatives and organized activities, many children don’t have the leisure or, sadly, even the motivation to play outside that their parents once did. Richard Louv, author of the widely read book “Last Child in the Woods,” has given a name to this disconnect: nature deficit disorder.
For two years now, Beverly and a group of mothers have gathered each month to talk about how to raise their children in a way that connects them to the natural world. They use a discussion packet from the Northwest Earth Institute called “Healthy Children, Healthy Planet.” (See more at http://nwei.org.) All eight women remember having the freedom of time and access to similar environments. Beverly and her friends see it as the responsibility of a healthy community to save some of these “semi-wild” spaces in neighborhoods where kids have the right to explore without adults supervising.
Environmental psychologists agree that such spaces are crucial to a child’s growing sense of autonomy. They need access to trees, vines and wild enclosures that give them a sense of both safety and adventure. In “The Geography of Childhood,” psychologist Brian Sutton-Smith says today’s child-designated places such as parks and school playgrounds are often too manicured to capture a child’s imagination: “Play has become too domesticated and regimented, while playgrounds themselves have become more and more barren. Many today are devoid of vegetation with which to form nests, shelters, wands, dolls or other playthings.”
These spaces don’t have to be large or elaborate and can start at home. They can be as simple as a place to jump from rock to rock or turn a tunnel of bushes into an outdoor room.
“I had a hedge along my backyard as a kid,” Beverly says. “When we went behind it — what might have seemed like a junky, small space — it felt like a different world, our world. I’m trying to create similar spaces in my own backyard that they might be attracted to.”
Beverly acknowledges the tension of wanting her children to be able to roam outdoors as she did but also fearing what might happen.
“On the one hand, I think I need to try to conquer my fears, because some of them may be overblown by media hype,” she says, “but as a parent you still say ‘what if.’ I think one answer is to recover strong neighborhoods where adults know and look out for children.”
The group has also discussed ways to give their children unscheduled time away from both school and structured activities to experience freedom outside.
“When I was a kid, we were encouraged to entertain ourselves. I want my children to have that latitude. One of the things I feel proudest of is that my kids think it’s normal to take a walk after supper. Over time, we’ve become aware of how much wildlife lives in our neighborhood. The kids even get to see foxes and bobcats. I want to protect pockets of wildness around us so that they’ll continue to have that.
“I’ve always had a passion for the natural world,” Beverly says. “But when I had kids, though, it became much more emotional. If humans don’t stop destroying the planet, it’s not going to be there for kids. The beauty and wildness will be gone.”