Recently, my younger son, Matthew, who is 10, looked at me across a restaurant table and said, quite seriously, "Dad, how come it was more fun when you were a kid?"
I asked him what he meant. "Well, you're always talking about your woods and treehouses and how you used to ride that horse down near the swamp."
At first, I thought he was irritated with me. I had been telling him what it was like to use string and pieces of liver to catch crawdads in a creek, something you'd be hard pressed to find a child doing these days.
It could be, in fact, that, like many parents, I romanticize my own childhood at the expense of appreciating my children's versions of play and adventure. But my son was serious. He felt that he had missed out on something important. The kind of freedom, and access to nature, that so many of us enjoyed when we were children seems a quaint artifact in an era of kid pagers, mall rats, and Nintendo bass fishing games.
Why the apparent separation of children from nature?
One reason is that parents are concerned about what could happen to their children in the canyons or woods or fields. But we're probably too concerned. Despite the occasional horrific stories about strangers who snatch or molest or murder a child, the actual rate of such offenses is not nearly as high as advertised.
Another reason is the way suburban sprawl has reduced the natural habitat for human children and other animals. What about urban and suburban parks? They're designed to avoid lawsuits.
A few years ago, a sixth-grader told me, "The reason I prefer playing indoors is that's where all the electrical outlets are." And no wonder. Society sends a clear message: The future is in electronics, certainly not in agriculture or anything else related to nature.
This month, one Atlanta kindergartner told a reporter for The New York Times, "I'd like to sit on the grass and look for ladybugs." No such luck; at her school, recess has been canceled.
If there's no time for recess, and no time for unstructured play, then there's surely no time for a child to lie in a field, watch the clouds move, and dream. Dreaming, it seems to me, is the core issue. Dreaming demands time and space and solitude, and that is what nature gives to children.
Academics have largely ignored the relationship between time, nature, and creativity. However, it's striking how many of our most-gifted thinkers and creators were touched, as children, by the magic of nature.
Joan of Arc first heard her calling, at 13, "toward the hour of noon, in summer, in my father's garden." Samuel Langhorne Clemens held down an adult job at 14 years old, but when his working day ended at 3 p.m., he headed to the river to swim or fish or navigate a "borrowed" boat. There he dreamed of becoming a pirate or a trapper scout and became Mark Twain.
The art critic Bernard Berenson recalled, "As I look back on fully 70 years of awareness and recall the moments of greatest happiness, they were, for the most part, moments when I lost myself all but completely in some instant of perfect harmony. In childhood and boyhood this ecstasy overtook me when I was happy out of doors ..."
Creativity begins, he theorized, "with the natural genius of childhood and the 'spirit of place.' "
Today, most children are probably hard pressed to induce this spirit of place while stuck in a traffic jam on their way to soccer practice, or trapped inside a house because of the fear of a drive-by shooting, or fixated on achieving the next level of Mortal Kombat. It's possible to develop a sense of wonder in all that, but unlikely.
I should add here that my sons tell me there is much that is good about today's childhood. But still, I wonder: What can parents, schools, and other institutions do to help children reconnect with nature?
In the meantime, Matthew, who enjoys Nintendo as much as the next kid, has let me know that he wants to do a lot more fishing this summer.
That, he says, is what he needs.
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