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Nature-deficit disorder and staycations

July 8, 2009

I know, right? “Nature-deficit disorder” sounds like a psychological disorder, but it’s not. Coined by Richard Louv in his 2005 book, The Last Child in the Woods: Saving our children from nature-deficit disorder, the premise is that children are spending more and more time indoors and separate from the natural world, particularly “wild” places and that this is detrimental to their physical and mental health. I haven’t yet read the book, but apparently he ascribes rising obesity, attention-deficit disorders, and ignorance and fear about the natural world to the fact that children are increasingly kept indoors. The indoor trend stems from several factors, including parental fear and the idea that keeping children indoors keeps them safe, lack of access to natural areas (particularly true in large urban areas), and our societal trend towards becoming increasingly electronically connected instead of naturally engaged in the world around us.

As a child I spent a lot of time outdoors. No, I didn’t quite have the hands-off 1950s approach where mothers kicked their kids (particularly boys) outside to get some peace & quiet and told them not to come back until the 6 pm fire bell rang (a common occurance in small towns and rural areas: the fire bell or emergency siren would ring at noon and 6 pm) for dinner. Nope, I’m a “millenial” as they call us, and I got plenty of time out-of-doors.

I was lucky enough to grow up in an old neighborhood with mature trees and sidewalks, only three blocks or so from my elementary school with a large playground, and only 6 or so blocks from a city park and the community pool. Extensive bike trails along the river that bisects Fargo-Moorhead (the Red) were just two blocks down a hill from my house. We had a backyard full of flowers and trees, with a vegetable garden behind the teeny detached garage. My family went on regular camping trips (real camping, first tenting, then with a pop-up camper), at least once a summer, to state parks throughout Minnesota and into North Dakota. We camped from the Badlands (Sully’s Creek is a great, cheap, primitive campsite along the river, if you’re ever in Medora) to the shores of Lake Superior (Temperance River State park is amazing!) down to the Black Hills (picking my birthstone – garnet – out of the ground? Awesome!). We visited my great-grandmothers’ houses in Tuttle, ND and outside of Robinson, ND every other summer and took long rambles on backcountry gravel roads, picking agates out of the dirt, plucking wildflower bouquets, and watching red-winged blackbirds perch on fragile reeds.

I owe my outdoor education to my biology-education-trained mother and my up-for-anything athletic father, but also to the books I read as a child: the Laura Ingalls Wilder series, L.M. Montgomery books, Gentle Ben, Jean Craighead George’s My Side of the Mountain trilogy and Julie of the Wolves, The Happy Hollister series, and The Boxcar Children feature prominently in my natural education. I was a rock hound and fossil hunter as a child (we went fossil hunting when visiting relatives in south central Ohio, where rivers and streams throw up oceanic fossils from an ancient inland sea). I loved learning about dinosaurs and modern animals. But most of all, my mother, through the natural world, taught me to be observant.

Even now when we go on family hikes or long walks in state parks, Dad & my little sister range far ahead with Max, our dog, straining and zig-zagging at the lead, me in the middle, and Mom trailing behind, nose nearly to the ground, as she searches for interesting plants to identify. I like being in the middle. There, I can enjoy the view and soak up the beauty (like my dad & sister like to do), but I can still stop, look, and listen when Mom finds something interesting. She can almost always identify the plant and almost always has some interesting tidbit about it, generally one of its current or historical uses. My favorite are unusual wild plants you can eat, like rosehips and grapevine shoots and cowslip stems. Even now that I’m in NY, when the boy and I go on walks I find myself with my eyes to the ground, watching and attempting to identify local plants. It’s harder than I expected. I need a field guide to NY!

My point about this long ramble is that I had an excellent natural education and I consider myself to be better off because of it. I’m not too worried about most of my little cousins, because some live on farms or in rural areas, my youngest first cousins have a wild stream and forest running through their suburban backyard, an most everyone in my family spends at least a few days each year at the lakes and/or camping and/or outdoors. I do worry about other children though, especially those living in large urban areas, or worse, barren suburbs with no sidewalks and rampant commercial sprawl.

The boy and I love the outdoors. On Monday we took another trip out to Lake Minnewaska on an absolutely gorgeous day. We took a nearly 6 mile round-trip hike through the forest on a wide, level trail, with a half hour, half mile detour on a rough footpath (very rocky, mostly down- or uphill) to see Rainbow Falls (gorgeous!). We got back exhausted and sweaty, ate lunch in the shade, then went for an hour-long swim in the cold clear waters of Lake  Minnewaska. Unfortunately, I think I pulled a muscle in my neck! Ouch! Oh well…

We have plans to go hiking pretty much every nice weekend this summer, unless we are upstate, in which case we’ll go for long rambles in the country. This fall is going to be super fun because I’d like to go leaf-watching and maybe rent a little cabin somewhere for a four-day weekend or something. This winter? Snowshoeing. Definitely. I should probably also teach the boy how to ice skate. And someday he’ll get a recurved bow and I’ll get mine outfitted and we’ll find an archery range.

In other words? As much as I love traveling, as much as I love Europe, the “staycation” has always been my favorite kind of vacation, long before the word was coined. And in my opinion, state parks and wildlife conservation areas are among the best staycations around. Second-best? Shhh, don’t tell my colleagues, but historic sites and museums come in second. Third-best? Roadtrips along county backroads through small towns. The absolute very best? A combination of all three!

Rural people throughout history and across all nations remain well-connected to nature. My advice? Spend the day outside, even if it’s just lazing in the park with a book, or choosing to sit outside of your favorite cafe or coffee shop with your laptop. Just be sure to look up every now and again to admire the sky, okay? Oh, and if you can, take a kid for a walk and tell them to keep sharp eye out for animals and unusual plants. Dusk is best for animals.

And now, to go try and get some cleaning done! Then maybe, outside? Or at least order a field guide to NY! Oh Amazon, you are my bane and my balm…

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3 Comments leave one →
  1. Linnea permalink
    July 8, 2009 7:42 PM

    I grew up reading the Happy Hollisters too – I have 20 or so books from my mom. My favorites are the one they go to Switzerland and the one that they’re on a houseboat on the river. I love the illustrations too 🙂

  2. July 8, 2009 8:57 PM

    I read that book. It was super good and made me look at nature in a whole new way.

    Also, there are still towns that blow fire whistles. It’s crazy…but my grandparent’s hometown of Loyal, WI still does 4 times a day.

    Finally, I’m super jealous of you and your hiking. Nature is often difficult to find here in the big city!

  3. vintagejenta permalink*
    July 9, 2009 6:24 AM

    Yay Happy Hollisters! I never read them all, my grandparents just had a few in their basement and the public library had a few. So alas, I never got to the Switzerland houseboat. My favorite was the canoe trip the kids took out in the wilderness. : D

    Fire whistles blowing at noon and six are awesome. You don’t need a watch! I kind of wish they would do that out here, but I think it’s a distinctly Midwestern thing.

    4 times a day? What are the times?

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