I spend a lot of time at work researching and writing about why children benefit from a connection to the natural world. The evidence is overwhelming: When children spend time outside they benefit academically, socially, physically, and mentally. One of the best books on this subject is Last Child in the Woods by Richard Louv.
He was right. Americans around my age, baby boomers or older, enjoyed a kind of free, natural play that seems, in the era of kid pagers, instant messaging, and Nintendo, like a quaint artifact.
Within the space of a few decades, the way children understand and experience nature has changed radically. The polarity of the relationship has reversed. Today, kids are aware of the global threats to the environment—but their physical contact, their intimacy with nature, is fading. That's exactly the opposite of how it was when I was a child.
As a boy, I was unaware that my woods were ecologically connected with any other forests. Nobody in the 1950s talked about acid rain or holes in the ozone layer or global warming. But I knew my woods and my fields; I knew every bend in the creek and dip in the beaten dirt paths. I wandered those woods even in my dreams. A kid today can likely tell you about the Amazon rain forest—but not about the last time he or she explored the woods in solitude, or lay in a field listening to the wind and watching the clouds move.
There is also a lot of great research about how our culture has evolved in such a way that children are no longer allowed to roam. Like in this case:
But when I am outside with Truman, digging in the dirt, walking on a trail, or just trying to burn off some energy (his, not mine), I don’t think about these things. I just feel more relaxed. More at ease. There is nothing to break, nothing to clean, no screens to stare at. There is something about being in the trees or on the beach, with no other people, that always reminds me that I am a human being (and not a human doing). So today, after a long walk in the forest near our home, I am grateful for natural spaces and time spent outside.
Rachael Carson says it much nicer than me:
Those who contemplate the beauty of the earth find reserves of strength that will endure as long as life lasts. There is something infinitely healing in the repeated refrains of nature ‑ the assurance that dawn comes after night, and spring after the winter.