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Article originally posted in The Voice-Tribune
“Once there was a tree, and she loved a little boy …” The Giving Tree by Shel Silverstein
The importance of being outdoors always strikes me more during this time of the school year, while straddling the fence between the last days of fall and the first cold days of winter. No matter the time of year, children should study a four leaf clover or run at top speed down a hill; however, it is becoming more and more difficult to carve out time for a simple walk after dinner for many families.
One important reason for young children to play and explore nature is it provides opportunities for imaginative play. This is the kind of play that when I was a child inspired my brother and me to play games where we slayed dragons, created a menu of food items out of mud, or captured fireflies (which was always more fun for my brother than it was for me). These activities made playing outside fun because we only needed each other and one bright idea. Our time outdoors in nature also forced us to work together to get projects done like our makeshift tree house.
According to Richard Louv, author of the bestseller Last Child in the Woods: Saving our Children from Nature Deficit Disorder, there are fewer and fewer opportunities for children to explore nature. He cites several reasons children are spending less time exploring nature among them the growing number of “flat concrete surfaces” and his belief that we are raising “a generation of wired children.” Because of these changes, Louv believes many children today are suffering from what he calls “nature deficit disorder.” Louv believes, “children in their formative years have always needed a special connection to nature.” Finding that connection given the hectic pace of our lives is not easy. However, without the connection, Louv believes children may never develop the “sense of wonder” that naturally comes from exploration. And like many in the nature and children movement, Louv’s biggest fear for the next generation is that young children will learn about the “global threats to the environment” yet will lack a genuine “intimacy with nature.”
I believe even with our hectic lives, we can provide rich opportunities for children to develop a natural sense of wonder as they play and explore nature. Simple things like flying a kite on a windy day, collecting scary bugs, rolling down a hill, star gazing, or playing catch do not cost a lot of money, do not take a great deal of time to plan, and are things that the entire family can enjoy together. It is essential to recapture the connection between nature and play because time outdoors not only helps to create that sense of wonder and imaginative play. From my personal experience, when given opportunities to explore nature young children develop better focus and flexibility, gain the ability to cooperate with others, and improve problem-solving skills.