As a child, I spent as much time out-of-doors as possible. I was lucky--in my time, children were sent outdoors on sunny days to play in the neighborhood and were only expected to show up at home for meals. Until I was nine, I lived on the edge of town in Rochester, MN, with my backyard blending into the beckoning woods beyond. When we moved to California, our home was one of the first in a newly developing area, where I could explore the woods, grasslands, and beach to my heart's content, my cocker spaniel at my side.
Today, when I visit my grandsons, we pile everyone in the car and go to the park. There, the adults sit on benches or stand around and watch the children at play. If a child wanders too far, way across the block of manicured grass on one side of the park, the caretaker gets concerned and may yell or gesture to get the child closer. There's no woods, no freedom from the eyes of adults. We've become a society beset by fear of what might happen to our children if they aren't in sight of a grownup at all times. How sad.
I don't think the world beyond our doorsteps is more dangerous today; I think this fear comes largely from the fact that if one child is abducted in far away Maine, or distant Oregon, every parent in America hears about it. At the same time, our children have become enchanted with what technology has to offer. Richard Louv, at the beginning of his seminal book, "Last Child in the Woods: Saving Our Children from Nature-Deficit Disorder," quotes a San Diego fourth-grader who said, "I like to play indoors better 'cause that's where all the electrical outlets are."
In his book, Louv documents the changes in American society that have led to our disassociation with nature and explains why these trends are damaging to young people. Hi links this absence of nature in children's lives with the rise in obesity, attention disorders and depression, and discusses ways to reverse the trend and to help kids engage with the natural world.
One important resource he doesn't cite is nonfiction trade books like those written by Ink Think Tank members. My favorite gift as a child was a factual book about nature--butterflies, snakes, great outdoor adventurers--I gobbled them up like candy. I wouldn't read fiction unless the main character was a dog or a horse. I know there are still children out there like me, and even if they don't live where they can spend lots of time out-of-doors, they can learn about wild places and wild things by reading such books. Then, when they do get outside, they can relate what they experience to what they've read., or they can come home or go to the library and read about the plants and animals they've seen during their outdoor adventures.
Nature inspires wonder. The sight of a fox on the meadow across the street from my house became a highlight of their visit to my granddaughters, and my grandsons still talk about the cinnamon bear that crossed our path in a nearby wildlife refuge. Once their curiosity is aroused, kids want to know more, and they want to learn, and they will read.