The Last Child In The Woods

I was an outdoor kid. During my early childhood, I was good friends with the girls who lived on my cul-de-sac, and in the classic suburban way my friends and I would roam our neighborhood in the afternoons until we were called home for dinner.

A few years later, my family had an extra-large backyard, and I remember summers spent digging in the dirt, climbing pine trees covered in sap, and exploring the kudzu ditches in my neighborhood alone and with friends. I would often go outside and not come back for hours, or not until it got dark.

It strikes me that my memories of summers spent largely outdoors are perhaps typical of suburban/rural children of my age and older, but are becoming increasingly rare for the children that I teach and for children my son’s age. Both the free-range parenting nature of my childhood experiences and the screen-free way my friends and I entertained ourselves would probably be considered rare today.

Last Child In The Woods: Saving Our Children From Nature-Deficit Disorder is a book about children’s increasing lack of exposure to nature that was published 11 years ago. Here is a summary:

 In this groundbreaking new work, child advocacy expert Richard Louv directly links the lack of nature in the lives of today’s wired generation—he calls it nature deficit—to some of the most disturbing childhood trends, such as rises in obesity, Attention Deficit Disorder (ADD), and depression.

Nature-deficit disorder is not a medical condition; it is a description of the human costs of alienation from nature. This alienation damages children and shapes adults, families, and communities. There are solutions, though, and they’re right in our own backyards. Last Child In The Woods is the first book to bring together cutting-edge research showing that direct exposure to nature is essential for healthy childhood development—physical, emotional, and spiritual. What’s more, nature is a potent therapy for depression, obesity, and ADD. Environment-based education dramatically improves standardized test scores and grade point averages and develops skills in problem solving, critical thinking, and decision making. Even creativity is stimulated by childhood experiences in nature.

I would be the first to tell you that a lot of the rhetoric about what’s wrong with”kids these days” (participation trophies, helicopter parenting, special snowflakes, etc. ) is dumb and overblown. But modern children’s lack of exposure to the outdoors is real. I see it frequently in the children that I teach, and I see its effects. (And don’t get me started on the issue of the lack of recess in too many schools.)  It’s depressing to think that since this book was published before smartphones and iPads were prevalent, many children’s “nature-deficit disorder” is surely worse now – because lots of their time is spent staring at a screen.

As for me, I hit puberty and stopped going outdoors as much. My idea of fun changed – outside was too hot, or cold, or boring. I really didn’t rediscover my love of nature until we had Jonah. Like many babies, any time he was fussy taking him outside immediately helped. We’d take long walks with the stroller and he would settle, and then fall asleep. Later I would put his bouncer on the deck and he would be happy as can be. “Outside!” was one of his first requests.

These days Jonah is in full-on explorer mode in nature. He is my lover of small things: acorns and pebbles and spiders and leaves. Daily, I see the benefits that Louv, the author of Last Child In The Woods, promises: problem-solving (how can I stack these three rocks on top of each other?), creativity (“a baby pinecone, Mommy!”), curiosity (“what’s that?”), and mood stabilization, to name a few.

I recently told an as-yet childless friend that nature is an essential part of my parenting. Being outside is mood-stabilizing for me, too, and it helps us keep Jonah’s screen time to a minimum.

It also helps me let Jonah take appropriate risks. Sure, you can walk on that (small) retaining wall in the backyard! Yes, that’s a bumblebee and if you don’t bother it, it probably won’t bother you. We can go sit on the dock by the lake but stay close to Mommy! I notice the difference between Jonathan and myself on this. Though I wasn’t there, it sounds like Jonathan was pretty much an indoor kid, and he is definitely an indoor adult. When he is outside with us he typically has several cautions: Be careful of bees! Bugs! Slipping and falling! Sunburn! Which is fine, and could even be a good counterpoint to my approach. But I can see that time spent outside is helping Jonah grow up fearless, confident and self-reliant.

Right now I’m planning what Jonah and I will do during our upcoming summer together. It’s going to involve lots of parks, swimming and hiking. I can’t wait.

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Honeysuckle

Last week I discovered honeysuckle growing deep in our backyard. If you’re wondering how I could possibly be unaware of something growing in my own backyard, then you a) haven’t seen our yard, and b) probably have a very different attitude toward yard maintenance than Jonathan and I do. In our defense, our backyard is large, partially wooded and rather unkempt. I actually love it when I’m not stressing about what the neighbors think. It’s very private and quiet, and it feels like we are hiking in the woods rather than in the center of the city.

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Jonah and I have been spending lots of time outside as the weather has gotten warmer, which led me to the honeysuckle discovery last week. I brought it up to Jonah’s nose to let him smell it, and showed him how to pull out the middle stem to eat the honey from inside. He was a fan and kept handing me blooms like the sweet boy he is.

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wikipedia.org

When I was 16, I wrote my first ever piece of writing that was just for fun and not for any kind of school assignment. The essay was called “Honeysuckle,”and I posted it on the still-existing fanfiction.net (ha). I wish that I could find a copy. I remember that this piece was about May, about driving around my hometown in a big white truck with a boy I liked, about not knowing what would happen next but being young and full of possibilities and living in the present.

Most people have probably heard about how of all senses, smells have the most profound connection to memories and emotions. I have a deep, visceral reaction every time I smell honeysuckle. It takes me back, to school letting out and the feeling of a full summer ahead of me with few responsibilities, to watching my brother’s baseball games on summer evenings, to being allowed to go out at night with friends for the first time, to summertime community theatre musicals, to kissing in cars in out-of-the-way spots with high school boyfriends, to returning home to Jackson after my car accident, to high school graduation and the beginning of college. To my wedding.

Honeysuckle means home. It’s where I’ve been, and it’s where I’m going. Smelling it takes me back to the best moments of my childhood and young adulthood. Life is beautiful like that.

 

What smells are nostalgic for you?