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Nature’s Best By Elma Chapman

 

That’s the intriguing title of a book by Richard Louv, published by Algonquin Books of Chapel Hill in 2005. I highly recommend it to parents, educators, and anyone interested in nature. In fact, I heard the director of the Indiana State Park System say that he gave this book to Gov. Mitch Daniels to read, and he feels it inspired him in some of his work to enlarge Indiana’s natural areas as part of the plans for the 2016 bicentennial celebration.

Louv’s perspective is that our society has so distanced itself from the natural world that our children suffer from what he calls “nature deficit disorder.” He maintains that “new studies suggest that exposure to nature may reduce the symptoms of ADHD, and that it can improve all children’s cognitive abilities and resistance to negative stresses and depression.” Children have a greater ability to concentrate in more natural settings. Being in nature reduces stress and can build resourcefulness and self-confidence.

Playing outside seems to be a lost art in many places, even in a rural setting like LaGrange County. What play is outside is most likely structured and supervised by adults, such as organized sports. What Louv calls for is unstructured time to observe, think, and dream. Children need to explore their world. “It takes time—loose, unstructured dreamtime—to experience nature in a meaningful way’” he says.

Nature is not only found in parks, but it can be found in your own yard or in a vacant lot. Many adults think back to a “special place” they had as a child and often that place was outdoors, away from the normal sounds and commotion of daily life. One teen Louv interviewed stated “In the city you can’t hear anything because you hear everything.” Quiet is frequently mentioned in reference to those special places.

Another interesting point that Louv makes is his “loose parts” theory. Instead of assembling the pieces to get a specified final object, natural plays allows children to be creative and build from what they find, change ideas as they progress, and be inventive. A few boards can become a fort or a tree house. We’ve all heard about small children who were less intrigued with a spiffy present than by the box it came in. The box offers possibilities.

Some of the studies Louv cites show that patients in hospital rooms with windows facing a green expanse go home sooner than those who have no window, or whose window faces another building or an asphalt expanse. Prisoners whose cells face open farmland have fewer illnesses than those whose cells face into the center of the prison. Another observation is that when children play on an asphalt surface, they build a hierarchy primarily based on physical strength and athletic ability, but when playing in a natural setting they build their hierarchy based on language skills, creativity and inventiveness.

Louv also offers quotes from children and young adults about how they see nature. One of the funnier ones, but also sad when you think about it, is “I like to play indoors better ‘cause that’s where all the electric outlets are.” A very introspective comment is this: “The quiet wisdom of nature does not try to mislead you like the landscape of the city does with billboards and ads everywhere. It doesn’t make you feel like you have to conform to any image. It’s just there, and it accepts everyone.”

In our busy society some may see time in nature as one more task for the harried parent, but Louv counters that with this: “If getting our kids out into nature is a search for perfection or is one more chore, then the belief in perfection and the chore defeats the joy. It’s a good thing to learn more about nature in order to share this knowledge with children; it’s even better if the adult and child learn about nature together. And it’s a lot more fun.”

Along these lines the IN DNR is teaming with the IN Children in Nature Network and the Environmental Education Association of Indiana to promote Family Nature Clubs. You can also check the research on www.childrenandnature.org.

Late winter can be bleak and dreary, and a good time for a good book. If you’re searching for something to read, check out this book. This article only scratches the surface of what Louv has to say.