As a kid, I had the good fortune to be hauled along on my dad's annual canoe trip into the wilds of northern Canada. For one or two weeks a year, we navigated river and trail, ran rapids, struggled along back-breaking portages, and on rare, happy occasions caught sight of the local inhabitants: a beaver chewing on a log, a few moose wading in the shallows, the odd wolf or black bear.
In total, I spent no more than a few months in the north, but my imagination, and to some extent my entire childhood, revolved around that brief chunk of time. Those short encounters with true wilderness had a disproportionately powerful effect on me. Each time I returned to suburbia from the wilderness, I replicated the experience as much as I could by exploring the woods that remained on the edge of the small city I grew up in.
A few acres of woodland next to a golf course became my playground – it was a chance for my friends and I to indulge in the sort of rowdy waywardness that has been an integral part of childhood since the cave days. Sadly, most of those trees have since been cut down and replaced by housing developments. Even if they hadn't been, it's unlikely the modern child would be given as much freedom as my friends and I had to explore them.
We are now just beginning to understand that the growing disconnection between kids and the natural world is an increasingly serious social problem. One researcher in the United Kingdom from the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds, Dr. William Bird, has noted a steady increase in the diagnosis of childhood mental illness and in the use of medication to treat it. But he also discovered evidence that simple exposure to nature – anything from unstructured play in a forest to a greening of the view from an urban classroom window – is an effective, non-pharmaceutical means of mitigating mental illness.
"Children undertaking activities in nature appear to improve symptoms of ADHD [Attention-Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder] by 30 percent compared to urban outdoor activities and threefold compared to the indoor environment," notes Dr. Bird.
A child using his imagination to play a game in the woods isn't just having fun; he's setting a foundation for future independence, inner strength and an ability to resist stress that will last a lifetime.
We could be encouraging natural play, but instead, we're in the process of forming a new, potentially dystopian culture of childhood. In the United States, Dr. Joe Frost addressed the Association for Childhood Education International Conference on the worsening situation that threatens the nation's children. The combination of increasing poverty and urbanization, the failure of the No Child Left Behind standardization initiative and the destruction of play represents a crisis, Frost argues. Cell phones, text messaging, video games and online chatting are supplanting free time in the fields and forests. Kids today are suffering from what author Richard Louv describes as "nature-deficit" disorder.
It's affecting children everywhere. When the Japanese photographer Keiki Haginoya set out in 1979 to document children at play on the streets of Tokyo, little did he know what lay in store for him. His work became a narrative of decline, showing the rapid loss of play space and the alienation of kids from natural outdoor activities and traditional games. By1996, he reached the depressing conclusion that children's laughter had entirely disappeared from the streets.
The subtle character of this crisis doesn't lend itself to a rapid solution. The simple and obvious idea that nature plays an important role in our mental health hasn't really caught on in the public mind, and is far from a priority for politicians. More and more kids are popping pills, and we're forking out billions of dollars in health care and other costs to deal with the consequences of poor mental health.
Children who survive through adolescence surrounded by gray walls and little time in the wilderness may not necessarily spend the rest of their lives believing that nature is a scary place, but the evidence suggests that their deficit of experience will result in an adulthood of generally higher stress and poorer health. Preserving and encouraging a natural environment is basic wisdom for the twenty-first century. An attractive future for humanity will be one in which all kids have the opportunity to roam, without fear, in an unspoiled land.