January 23, 2008 Edition

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A concrete jungle

Richard Louv recently crossed my path. I had never heard of him before but suddenly he was everywhere. Who is he? He's a journalist, the author of several books, a parent and the voice of reason.

Louv is the author of "Last Child in the Woods: Saving Our Children from Nature-Deficit Disorder." When the book first came to my attention I was immediately struck by the truthfulness of the message it contained.

Most children in the United States do not play outside anymore. A few are involved in sports and once a year or so some of them go to the zoo, but they are for the most part not exposed to nature in the raw, so to speak. We have paved over nature with parking lots and malls.

In his book Louv said, "Many members of my generation grew into adulthood taking nature's gifts for granted; we assumed (when we thought of it at all) that generations to come would also receive these gifts. But something has changed."

One something that has changed is that we have left behind the sense of community. In many of our country's neighborhoods children do not know each other or have contact with each other. When I was raising my children they played with all the other kids who lived on our street. They were outside playing ball, climbing trees, jumping rope and riding bikes.

Louv quoted one child's response to why he stayed indoors so much, "I like to play indoors better because that's where the electrical outlets are." He interviewed thousands of families during the course of his research and concluded that there is a deep fundamental change in the way children view their environment. Entertainment is electronically oriented now. Louv points out that our children are spending more and more time in front of the television or game consol and less and less time in active activities. Although he is not advocating the removal of these distractions he does encourage each of us to take our children outside and show them what they are missing.

One of the parents interviewed said that she sent her children out to play in a vacant field that was adjacent to their home after complaints that they were bored. After several hours of play the children returned excited about the fun they had outside. The next day, the same children refused to return to the field to play because they had already done that once.

Many of today's children expect to be entertained. They don't know how to entertain themselves or how to turn rocks and sticks or mud puddles into play.

Louv also points out parental fears also limit the child's outdoor experiences. Parents are afraid of what the outdoors holds for their children. They fear the traffic (with some justification), "critters" and even the dirt. Our preoccupation with being sanitized has made getting dirty a taboo to many children.

In a world of decreasing forests and natural habitats, it's time to take stock of what we are teaching our children about their environment. If we don't we may truthfully end up in a concrete jungle.

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