I GREW UP in the suburbs in a time when kids, when they weren’t in school, ran around the neighborhood and played outdoors mostly unsupervised. In those days we were less fearful for our children — less fearful of strangers and natural dangers such as falling from skateboards or trees. Days spent roaming the hillsides, collecting frogs, observing caterpillars weave their cocoons, and sliding down grassy slopes in a cardboard box were all a part of childhood, the outdoors as integral as family.
Now, children grow up under the constant supervision of adults, usually indoors, glued to a TV, phone, or another electronic device. And not just indoors. Recently, on a beautiful weekend, I was cycling south along the Vine Trail in Napa County, enjoying the bright beauty of the yellow mustard, orange California poppies, bluebells, and other wildflowers that had sprung up seemingly overnight. The air was heady with the fragrance of spring. Riding in the opposite direction, a man cycled past with a child trailer in tow. As he passed, I nodded my hello and then noticed that the girl riding in the trailer, about four or five years old, had her head down, her thumbs working, her eyes focused on the screen of a smartphone. She was missing everything — the sunshine, the flowers, the glorious beauty of the day.
I worry about these children, our grandchildren. And not just them — I worry about the future of a humanity that has lost touch with the natural world.
In his book, The Last Child in the Woods, Richard Louv calls this lack of connection to the earth “nature-deficit disorder.”
The benefits of connecting with nature have been well documented over the last twenty years. Studies have repeatedly shown that our physical, psychological, intellectual, emotional, and even social health are positively influenced when we have daily contact with nature. While these benefits are especially important for children, I believe it’s never too late to restore that natural bond we have with the earth.
I’ve always worked indoors — desk jobs, teaching, writing — and a number of years ago began to realize that I had become disconnected from nature. At noon, craving something beyond concrete and glass and steel, I would go outside to find a small patch of grass under a tree to sit and eat my lunch. I took a course by Michael J. Cohen, author of Reconnecting with Nature: Finding wellness through restoring your bond with the Earth. Eventually, I bought a home situated on a couple of acres among the tall grasses and scrub oaks in the California foothills.
There, I became aware of the subtlest changes, the rhythm of the seasons, to learn by observing, and how to live with wildlife. I no longer live in the foothills, but the love of the land I acquired there has remained with me, and I get outdoors as often as possible.
The benefits of spending more time outdoors include:
- Better physical health and reduced obesity due to increased physical activity.
- Improved vision — this one is true for children; I’m not sure if being outdoors more would improve an adult’s vision. Myopia (near-sightedness) is related to spending too much time indoors. Our eyes just don’t have a need to see long distances and adjust accordingly.
- Reduced stress. Greenery, water, big skies, fresh air — just getting outdoors can decrease stress levels dramatically.
- Enhanced creativity, problem-solving, and cooperation. Studies of children found that when they engaged in outdoor play, they played more creatively, cooperated with each other more, and worked together to solve problems. I’m going to take a leap here and posit that if we adults spent more time playing outdoors, we’d reap those same benefits.
- Increased sense of responsibility for and empathy with living things — animals, plants, and each other.
Conversely, when we spend all our time indoors, connected to electronic devices, we not only lose connection with nature, we lose some vital connection with each other.
This could be why the world is drifting into a social-media-based global society that is both without empathy and vicious. And why it’s so hard to get people to care about the environment or respond to warnings about global destruction — it’s simply not real to us. The world is someplace “out there” and not relevant to our everyday lives.
We assume that nature will always be there, just outside our doors, and that it’s basically indestructible. Sure, the earth is warming up a bit, but so what? We’ll adapt, right? This is wishful thinking. The truth is that right now many species are becoming extinct, and the natural ecosystems that support life (both animal and human) are eroding at a faster rate than ever before.
There’s a saying, “When you have your health, you have everything. When you do not have your health, nothing else matters at all.” If you’ve ever been ill, you know that’s a true statement. Living a life without connection to the natural world puts our health at risk.
So, what will happen if we continue on our current path of disconnection? We have a lot of dystopian and science fiction literature that gives us some idea of what could happen to humanity without nature. And none of it looks like where I want to live.
What’s the solution?
We simply must disconnect from our electronic devices and get outdoors: take walks, play outdoor games and sports (up for a game of cricket or corn hole?), participate in community gardens and the like. And we must make our kids put down their tablets and go outside to play.
Reconnecting with our natural environment will help us recognize its importance to all aspects of our health (not to mention our very existence), and enable us to work together — no matter what our political affiliation — to halt and reverse the devastating effects of pollution and over-mining the earth’s natural resources.
The alternative is too grim to imagine.