Either they have no place to play (no public greenspace, no accessible virgin or natural spaces, fenced backyards), they aren't allowed to play (it's too dangerous--whether realistic or imagined), or they have simply forgotten how to make their own play (their natural creativity has been dulled by contemporary toys and play-places).
Richard Louv, author of Last Child in the Woods, coined the term "Nature-Deficit Disorder" for this problem. I saw Louv speak at a conference a few years back, after his book was first published. At the time, I thought he was a bit long on diagnosis and short on cure, but I do think that his diagnosis is spot-on. (Though I could do without the hype surrounding this "disorder," the book is good reading for anyone who is now or will ever be responsible for the life of a child.)
One evening, when my boys were younger, Matthew, then ten, looked at me from across a restaurant table and said quite seriously, Dad, how come it was more fun when you were a kid? - Richard Louv, Last Child in the Woods
This isn't just an urban phenomenon, of course. It crosses all socio-economic boundaries and is just as prevalent in the city kids who have never been to a working farm as it is in the rich suburban kids who don't know what grass looks like when it hasn't been mowed lately. Unless you are intentional about the way you expose your children to the natural world, there's a large chance they will grow to prefer an hour with the latest video game over a hike in the woods or a chance to watch a thunderstorm on the front porch.
I am not a fanatic; I do not believe the world is going to Hell in a hand basket because some kids can't identify trees. I do, though, think we have a problem on our hands and it's affecting our kids' health, creativity, and the very depth of their experience of life.
My husband and I revisit this issue often: how can we give our city-raised, concrete-walking kids a love for nature?
Without a backyard or nearby forest for exploration, how can we guarantee that our children grow up with a basic understanding of natural science (something that was once considered basic human knowledge and a matter of survival) and the beauty of nature's rhythms (which births a sense of awe and wonder)?
And while surrounded by urban crime and blight, how can we give our children the wellness and bravery that naturally rises from experiences in natural spaces?
More so, how can we cultivate their young, creative minds when all our neighborhood offers are restrictive city streets and plastic, pre-fab public parks as play places?
In the past five or ten years, with an eco-renaissance of sorts in popular culture, the tides are beginning to shift and parents are becoming more intentional about recapturing the wild, outdoor experiences that used to be the norm for all children. Although purists are skeptical of the popularity of "going green," this popularity has benefits. Namely, the opportunities that were once reserved for "weird" and eccentric parents are now being embraced by soccer moms and public schools alike.
Because this issue is so dear to me, I want to make it a regular topic on The Walking Green. Every couple weeks I'll be introducing an opportunity, local organization, place, person, etc. as a resource for families who care about providing these important outdoor experiences for their children or the children they care for. Let me know if there's something that you believe deserves some attention and I'll try to feature it!
In the meantime, shut down your computer, grab the kids, and go play outside!