Tuesday, February 5, 2008

Dreaming of the Woods

Today, after wading through 3 inches of slush and being pelleted with endless rain and wind, I began fantasizing about summer. It isn’t just the cabin fever of winter days that’s been getting to me, but the guilt knowing my kids and I have done nothing outdoors lately other than an occasional snowball fight.

Last year, I read Last Child in the Woods. It’s not a disturbing child abduction tale that a friend of mine had assumed. It’s about nature deficit disorder in children. Instinctively, anyone who lives in an urban or suburban area knows there’s a problem with how disconnected we’ve become to the natural world. I’m not going to go into the dangers mentioned in the book regarding the consequences of leading an inactive, indoor life, they seem fairly obvious – obesity, depression, attention disorders, anxiety, stress, apathy towards environmental stewardship. What interested me in the book is the benefits of natural environments - woods, lakes over man made outdoor environment, like sports fields and playgrounds. As a mom this resonated with me. I hate playgrounds. I took my kids to them of course (and still do), to get a little fresh air and excercise. But to me, it’s like baby jail with all those brightly colored bars defined by a pea gravel pad. When my kids were toddlers, it was though I was the benevolent prison guard, making sure they didn’t get out of bounds, all for their protection of course, but it felt confining. Not too far from me is a big, beautiful park with forested walking trails, trees to climb, the ruins of an old 19th century school which I so much prefer to go to and where the pictures below are taken.

When my oldest was in preschool, a group of mothers and I decided to meet up at a park and discussed which one to go to. My suggestion for the big, beautiful park was shunned, ‘there’s nothing to do there’ they said. So we headed to a park with a playground that was surrounded by some forested area. We went there every week. By the second week or so, the children spent less and less time on the playground. Instead they gravitated towards a nearby stream, and eventually all the moms just set up their lawn chairs by the stream and forgot about the playground altogether. The kids were like little chimpanzees, finding sticks and poking around in the mud, turning over rocks, inventing creative games for everyone to be involved in, not just competing over who could climb the highest as they did at the playground. What astounded me is some of the parents were surprised by this, assuming playgrounds, being structured for kid fun would naturally be preferred over a bunch of rocks and sticks. Sometimes we really forget what it’s like to be a kid. This kind of example is talked about in the book. Kids need a natural environment, not an artificial outdoor one to truly explore. Their play is more egalitarian, their stress is reduced, they feel ‘connected’. What’s true for kids, I’m sure is true for adults as well. So I’m dreaming of the woods, for heading outside and just exploring, with no goal in mind, just… because.


dinahmow said...

Oh! You are so right! Sometimes, protection is too stifling.

andrea said...

We have a park near our house that has a playground, baseball field and wooded area. When my kids were little they immediately made for the woods. Are those your dogs? (I'm finding it weird living without dogs.) Your girls look like mini versions of you.

Angela Rockett said...

Don't have kids, but these ideas resonate with me nonetheless. May I join you as you are "dreaming of the woods, for heading outside and just exploring, with no goal in mind, just… because"?

girl work studios said...

Dinah:I think we all need the freedom to roam and explore, and I'd love to be where you are right now, tropics and summer! lucky you!

Andrea: Those are my dogs, very geriatric, the black one is 12 in a few days and not doing so good. Working from home, dogs really are your companions throughout the day aren't they? Are you starting to think of maybe bringing home a new (canine)family member?

Angela: You certainly may join me! I think the idea of feeling disconnected from nature applies to any age (and more and more these days). It would be great if planners and developers created more wild green spaces in suburban and urban settings, but unfortunately, when it's all about $$$, that's just considered 'wasted space'.

patricia said...

Love these photographs. Makes me long for summer, looking out the window now, and seeing so much freakin' snow.

I've heard about this concept before, nature deficit disorder. It's funny how we have to apply scientific names to every problem on the earth, but this is indeed a problem. I have very fond memories of playing by the creek in the little forest which was very close to our home in Burlington. Now, that creek and forest is gone, replaced by ticky-tacky suburban box homes. Very sad. Where do the kids go? Not too far, I imagine. Just plunk down in front of the tv or video game or XBox or whatever.

I'm reminded recently of something I witness while waiting for the Jane bus to go to the Bloor subway station. A mother was waiting with her two (sadly very overweight) boys. Both boys (ages about 11 and 13) were extremely rude and aggressive. They demanded pizza slices at the nearby pizza place while waiting for the bus, and of course the mother gave in, anything to calm them down. The kids ate like animals. Their faces were covered in pizza sauce, and they dropped their napkins all over the ground, and the mother did nothing, just let them litter. Then one kid dropped his pizza on the sidewalk, and then both of the kids got into stomping up and down on the pizza. As they noisily got on the bus, they left a mound of dirty napkins and flattened pizza where they had stood. I see this behaviour over and over in the city, and all I can think is Lord save us, these kids will be in charge of us one day. What hath we wrought?

(Sorry to blather, but it's a touchy issue with me).

girl work studios said...

Patricia, I was thinking the same thing reading the book- another psychological label for what is really just an unnatural way to go about living. Your story of those two boys hit home, the aggresiveness that comes about from is alarming. We have a school here, where problem kids are sent. They spend a huge amount of time outdoors doing physical labour while they're learning and so many of them thrive. Love to see more of that in regular public schools.

Do you remember the golf course and the woods in Burlington on Burloak? We use to love going there, hanging out at the pond, catching tadpoles and frogs. The new subdivision went up while I was still in high school. I remember feeling a pang of sadness about it even back then.