Give them an experience in nature with a gifted educator who can show how exciting catching a water bug, or finding an earthworm, or trying to construct their own nest can be – as opposed to an actor deliberately trying to make nature “boring” – and you’ll see kids with shining eyes and an exhilarated sense of discovery.
They may not be screaming with the out-of-control abandon they exhibited at the mention of Toys "R" Us – even kids have learned when they’re supposed to be really excited. But I would argue that the joy they get from that natural experience is far deeper, more long-lasting, and will pay much greater dividends over their lifetime than any object they bring home from the toy store, which more than likely will be both broken and forgotten in a short time, another casualty of our throwaway culture.
In his landmark book, "Last Child in the Woods: Saving Our Children from Nature-Deficit Disorder," Richard Louv documents the degree to which we as a society – and especially our children – have become disengaged from nature, and the harm that it causes.
The percentage of children who live close to school and walk or bike there has declined 25 percent in the past 30 years, and only 20 percent of kids live within a half-mile of parks or playgrounds, according to the Centers for Disease Control. Children have fewer hours of unstructured play, are often not allowed to play outside due to safety concerns or neighborhood association restrictions, and are consuming more electronic media than they used to.
Poor and urban kids – the same kids that Toys "R" Us is targeting in its ad – are even less likely to have access to green space or to a truly natural area.