Richard Louv writes, in Last Child in the Woods: Saving Our Children from Nature-Deficit Disorder, that children’s understanding & experience of nature has changed over time and that these changes have not been for the betterment of relationships with nature. Louv, in the book, writes about many practices in environmental education that are both effective and affective. Take his stance on unstructured time outdoors: I too have written that children’s free play at is integral the development of a pro-environmental ethic. Kids need more freedom to just be.
Yet, while reading Louv and now appearing elsewhere, a reflection that the “way it was”—recreating experiences of our youth for today’s youth—emerged and seems to be promoted as one answer to our culture’s disconnect to the more-than-human. Take, for example, this video blog from Mark Morey, founder of the Institute for Natural Learning, to Ontario environmental educators. Here’s the whole 4:24:
Morey has been invited by the P.I.N.E Project to come and share his experience “connecting people of all ages to nature“. And not to say that this isn’t intriguing or a noble cause I believe in. I was interested enough about Morey’s experience to want to join the talk at OISE on March 6th.
But I was interested in what Morey said at 3:11:
So I’m looking forward to coming up there and sharing more stories about how we can have a powerful life together. Happy families, healthy families. Look back to what it was that we had when we were younger and how we can renew those things again so we can be strong, resilient and joyful.
Now, I’m not going to judge Morey’s entire message based on two sentences from a video blog, but the perceived sentiment, coupled with Louv’s penchant for looking for inspiration in his experiences growing up worries me a bit. I’m worried that high profile thinkers and practitioners are looking back at, even romanticizing, their childhood as an example of connecting to nature done right.
Lying underneath those beliefs is an assumption that is troubling: that a static relationship with the natural world should exist. And if not static, then the relationship with nature crystallized in our youth should be the model for the relationship for others.
Rightly or wrongly, the state of the more-than-human, largely due to anthropocentric inputs, is changing at a faster inter-generational pace. I don’t deny the changes our collective actions have made to the environment but nature has not ended. Rare wildlife live in brownfields. There is no steady-state in ecology. Disturbance is the rule, not the exception. The “nature” we experienced as children is not the same “nature” that our children will experience.
Western school-aged learners today are deeply impacted (pdf alert) by the increasing “speed” of information through the emergence of new technologies (broadly: the Internet, mobile phones, computers). Regardless whether you like this development or not, it doesn’t appear that we’re at the cusp of the cultural change necessary for the re-evaluation of the central location of these technologies in children’s lives.
Louv rages against video games. With him, I agree that they’re poor substitutes for first-hand experience. He asks, on page 96 (of the revised version) how children can build a sense of wonder or spirit of place when playing video games. The crux for me, though, is that we’re not going to wrestle the PS3 controller out of every child’s hand: childhood now includes the experience of video games, good or bad. Louv’s solutions do not come in questioning the form, structure or content of video games. They’re judged as a homogenized whole without any kind of merit.
Yet, Louv’s childhood is to be mined. Tree forts ought to be built, kids need to be free-range. My Dad had access to woods and fields in the 1950s because his family moved to the suburbs: those woods and fields became the next subdivision in a few years time. Subdivisions of the mid-century became the drivers (no pun intended) behind our unsustainable North American car-centric culture today. Ignoring this milieu and hearkening back to when kids played outdoors all day is myopic.
Returning to Louv’s larger question about connecting to the more-than-human, some observations: nature changes, culture changes, children change. Practices for knowing the more-than-human should change too.