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Nature Deficit Disorder
By Kathy Ceceri

When Barb Moore, her brother Steve Bullock, and their three siblings were growing up in Latham, their house backed up to woods that provided all the playground they needed.

“We were outside all the time, all summer long,” Moore recalls. “We’d go out the door in the morning and not come home until lunch time. Then my mother would throw a peanut butter sandwich at us and we’d stay out until dinner. That’s the way my mother liked, and that’s the way we liked it.”

Moore and Bullock still remember building forts, trail riding on their bikes, and playing other games with the rest of kids in the neighborhood. In the winter, a swampy part of the woods would freeze and the family would ice skate. In the spring, when it flooded, they’d build rafts.

But around the time Moore reached high school, new houses started to replace the woods, and their parents sold off part of their property to a developer. Her brother and sister-in-law Colleen still live in the house she grew up in, but her two nieces don’t get to play the way she and her brothers did.

“There’s nowhere to build a fort or pick blackberries. There’s no stream,” Moore says.

In Saratoga Springs, where Moore and her husband Ken now live with their own two daughters, it’s rare to find kids playing outdoors. Moore says neighbors have told her that not until her girls moved in did the local children gather for games of hide and seek, kickball, ghost in the graveyard and flashlight tag.

Playing in woods and fields is even rarer, and the city doesn’t make it easy for kids. Bike riding is forbidden at the East Side Rec, and every winter the trees in High Rock Park sprout “No Sledding” signs. The carousel downtown was built over the objections of some who suggested young people didn’t belong in Congress Park at all.

And just as in Latham, vacant lots and wooded corners around town are giving way to new homes and manicured lawns. According to Alane Ball Chinian, executive director of SaratogaPLAN, even land-preservationists support “in-filling” the city’s undeveloped spaces, as a way to save outlying wild areas.

Things have changed for kids in rural areas, too, says Jana Harris of Pilot Knob on Lake George. Fear of strangers and neighbors who don’t know each other have made adults wary of letting children roam freely outdoors. Harris and her husband Lee grew up in Pilot Knob and live and farm there on 35 acres, but their children Charlotte, 9, and Grace, 5, get scolded if they go out-of-bounds.

“You don’t want to let the kids run out and play,” says Jana.. “There’s homes where there weren’t homes. My sister and I could ride our bikes on the road; there wasn’t excessive traffic. You could never do that now.”

“There used to be paths along the lake,” adds Lee. “We used to go up and down other people’s docks and fish -- you’d be arrested now.”

All around the country, says newspaper columnist Richard Louv, children are getting the message that it’s dangerous outside. Public school systems and the media, bolstered by laws and attitudes that consider unstructured play a nuisance and a hazard, are scaring parents and kids back inside just when fitness levels are dropping and hyperactivity is soaring. But the truth is, Louv argues in his new book, Last Child in the Woods: Saving Our Children from Nature-Deficit Disorder, that interacting with nature can be a salve for these problems and more.

“Obviously, I used ‘Nature Deficit Disorder’ as a phrase to get attention – and it works,” Louv admits in a phone interview from his home in San Diego. But he adds, “I believe a lot of kids are harmed. My kids [two sons, one 17, one grown] did not have the same free-range childhood I did. I do believe future generations will lose a sense of wonder.”

Research backs up Louv’s assertion that green spaces are “Nature’s Ritalin.” A 2003 Cornell study found that children living near nature showed less behavioral disorders, anxiety and depression, and Swedish investigators report that kids who played together outdoors have better social support systems. Children playing in natural environments instead of manmade playgrounds show interaction based on language skills, creativity and inventiveness rather than just physical prowess. Even just being in a room with a view, studies say, can boost a child’s attention span and help calm kids with attention deficit disorders.

But is it safe out there for kids? Louv says the stranger-danger statistics don’t match the fear we feel.

“A Duke University study said kids are safer than at any time since 1975,” he points out. “Still, that doesn’t comfort us completely. Dealing with that fear is in some ways realistic -- but there are other dangers, of keeping a child under house arrest.”

Anita Sanchez, senior environmental educator at the state-run Five Rivers Environmental Center in Delmar, encounters other fears as well.

“People are afraid of rabies and Lyme Disease,” she says. “We now carry hand sanitizers in the First Aid kits. We didn’t do that 10 years ago. Parents are really concerned about germs. But it’s just not possible to be totally sanitary in the outdoors.”

Sanchez does a lot of reassuring nowadays when parents and kids dissect an owl pellet, wade in a stream or explore a meadow.

“It’s going to be safe, it’s going to be fun,” she tells them. “Relax, we won’t get eaten.”

Jim Bruchac has seen students from Lake Avenue Elementary School in Saratoga -- which has virtually no green space – approach the shelter-building program at the Ndakinna Education Center in Greenfield Center with an air of feverish excitement.

“They’re extremely deprived,” Bruchac, the center’s director, says. “The first thing you see is that the woods are foreign to them. But there’s a transformation even in a couple of hours, an enthusiasm, an awareness of their surroundings. Their overall being seems to change.”

Not only does Bruchac share Native American and Adirondack culture, he also has to teach kids how to act in the woods.

“They’re not aware if you knock over a dead tree it might hit someone. If you run, you might trip,” he say. “We give the kids some basic survival skills, make them less afraid.”

For his part, Louv hopes the idea of “Nature Deficit Disorder” will encourage parents -- and society -- to let the kids out.

“There’s no replacement,” he says, “for having nature in your heart.”

© 2007 Kathy Ceceri

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Copyright © 2009 Kathy Ceceri

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