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Daddy, What Does a Forest Look Like?

Maria Montessori? Not this time. This insight into the young child’s relationship with the everyday world comes to us from Richard Louv, author of Last Child in the Woods: Saving our Children from Nature-Deficit Disorder(published in 2005). Many Montessorians heard Louv speak at the NAMTA conference in Atlanta (January, 2006).

What exactly is Nature-Deficit Disorder?

A generation of children are growing up without the benefit of smelling roses, jumping in puddles, climbing trees, or watching a trail of ants move things significantly larger than the ants themselves. According to Louv, parental fears about outdoor safety coupled with the seemingly ubiquitous inclination to interact with computers, television, and video games indoors are the root causes. Limited access to wild places for city kids and schedules packed with organized after-school activities and homework can also be factors.

Does it matter? Maria Montessori wrote, “One time a child came to me saying that he wanted to see something very beautiful, of which he had heard much talk—the stars. He had never seen them because he had to go to bed very early.” (The Child in the Family.) Doesn’t that break your heart a little bit? We Montessori parents and teachers believe that children create themselves through interactions with their environment and surroundings. From blades of grass in the back yard to the evergreen trees of a national forest, we already try to give our children the world so they can wholly create themselves. Exploring the outdoors can be inconvenient, messy, time- consuming, and appear disordered. In spite of all that, it matters enough to wake a child at midnight to see the stars.

Last Child in the Woods

Louv’s book suggests that we, as a culture, have overlooked the value of freeing our children in nature. Louv does a great job of explaining how it happened, citing childhood obesity, high blood pressure, and attention deficit disorder as indicators that something has gone awry. Research shows that direct exposure to nature is essential for physical and emotional health. Increased time outdoors is said to reduce the symptoms of ADHD, improve children’s cognitive abilities, and help children resist negative stresses and depression.

Louv says it best, “Nature as antidote. Stress reduction, greater physical health, a deeper sense of spirit, more creativity, a sense of play, even a safer life—these are the rewards that await a family when it involves more nature into children’s lives.

Educators, government, national conservation groups, and even corporations, have responded to Louv’s message with a genuine “back-to-nature” movement. The U.S. Forest Service recently launched its $1.5 million “Kids in the Woods” program aimed at getting mostly inner-city children into the wild. The National Wildlife Federation created “The Green Hour Forum,” a national campaign to persuade parents to encourage children to spend an hour a day in nature. Recently, a Seattle sporting goods store hosted a panel discussion on “Raising Children With Connections to Nature.”

How hard can it be?

Well, it won’t be easy. With life moving at the pace it does, open-space disappearing, and access to nature’s beauty becoming more and more of a challenge, we need to seriously commit. As Montessori parents and teachers, we’re no strangers to going out of our way to provide the opportunities children need. We’ll find a way to satisfy the young child’s fascination with fauna, flora, seasons, and the natural world with hands-on experiences, knowing those experiences will transform the way children look at life and themselves.

Some children will find peace and stillness, some will discover a world of space and freedom, some might encounter an overwhelming joy and bliss. The truth is that the benefit for the children is very, very big. Enjoy this new experience with them—you just might find “something very beautiful” together.

How to bring children and nature together.

Experiencing the joy of nature need not involve rented kayaks, hundreds of miles in a car, or a giant expedition to faraway lands. Your own neighborhood and community provides a great start. Even the crack in a sidewalk is an ecosystem to explore! Get your own creative juices flowing with these simple ways to incorporate nature—healer, balancer, and builder of people—into your children’s lives.

  • Read the book. Louv is eloquent and entertaining and the book is full of research substantiating his ideas. You can order the updated, 2008 edition of Last Child in the Woods—Saving our Children from Nature-Deficit Disorder directly from the author here.
  • Make time for outdoor play. The Montessori work period is an uninterrupted block of time that allows the child to fully experience his surroundings, understand them on a multi-sensory level, and develop himself or herself in relation to them. Free, uninterrupted time outside is the same offering. For busy families, this could be the hardest part!
  • Start small. Play with your child outside in the backyard or on the porch instead of inside. Notice the clouds, the wind, the tiny bugs in the grass. Take a walk in your town. Smell the flowers and the leaves growing along the sidewalk. Sit in the middle of a field or at the edge of a pond or lake and watch and listen. Talk with your children about what they hear, smell, and see.
  • Set an example. Find something exciting and share it. My father once invited me outside to see something “magnificent.” Even as a child, I recognized this as somewhat unusual for my engineer, neutral, never-got too-excited-about-things father. I followed him and his glee outdoors to admire a praying mantis, and listened to him explain how rarely an opportunity to see a mantis arose. I’ve always considered this the catalyst for my fascination with the natural world. Suddenly, simply, it was illuminated with such sincerity and awe. You don’t need to know all the answers—like most things with young children, just being there together and experiencing the wonder is enough.
  • Unplug and slow down. Television, computer time, interactive games, even the over-scheduling of extra-curricular activities, rob children of opportunities to interact with their world on a deeper level. Time without constant stimulation is time to pause, reflect, and take it all in—time the young child needs to develop as an individual in a relationship with the environment.
  • Plant some seeds. Watch them grow. Radishes, chives and zinnias are hardy choices that grow very quickly, even on a windowsill. Give a small portion of your flowerbed or vegetable garden to your child and discover dirt, water, earthworms and ants together.
  • Have a scavenger search. Check out a resource book on a nature subject that appeals to your child—trees, birds, footprints, rocks. Try to avoid glaciers and Australian mammals unless you’re planning a vacation soon! Read about nature together, then go find real specimens to observe.

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