A growing body of research and plenty of anecdotal evidence have linked today’s childhood maladies of attention-deficit disorder (ADD), attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), obesity, and depression to a societal alienation from the natural world.
In his best-selling book, Last Child in the Woods, Richard Louv has coined the phrase “nature-deficit disorder” to describe this condition. Nature deficit disorder is pervasive and its effects can be seen throughout fast-paced, plugged-in, and wired western culture. The cure, while near at hand, requires a radical (“at the roots”) change in the education of young children.
Speaking of roots, the founder of the first kindergarten, Friedrich Froebel, was a forester with an intimate understanding of the web of life and the necessity of a child’s connection to the natural world. He compared a growing child to a young sapling: “I would educate human beings who with their feet stand rooted in God’s earth, whose heads reach even into heaven and there behold truth, in whose hearts are united both earth and heaven.”
Froebel’s advice to us today? “Protect the new generation: do not let them grow up into emptiness and nothingness, to the avoidance of good hard work, to mechanical actions without thought and consideration. Guide the young away from the harmful chase after outer things and the damaging passion for distraction.”
I find it difficult to imagine early nineteenth century distractions, what with today’s electronic gadgets, video games, and overstuffed playrooms. And yet Froebel understood their power to endanger and engulf the vulnerable soul of a child. What is there in nature that we need so desperately today and that we so easily crowd out of our children’s lives with well-meaning gifts and entertainment?
In The Sense of Wonder, Rachel Carson writes that in the heart of every child is an inborn sense of wonder waiting and ready to be guided to its full potential. Whether this sense of wonder is fostered into a life-long passion or dies a premature death depends on each child finding the “companionship of at least one adult who can share it, rediscovering with him the joy, excitement, and mystery of the world we live in.” Such an adult understands what is at stake and will use every opportunity to awaken the child during these first years of discovery.
Without a sense of awe and reverence for the mysteries hidden in nature and in the heart of the human soul, the earth and its people become mere commodities to be abused and disposed of when their usefulness has been expended.
Parents or educators feeling a lack of knowledge need not worry. All it takes is an understanding heart, a curious mind, and a willingness to let the child become freely and completely absorbed in exploring nature. Naturalist John Burroughs writes that the secret lies in the “capacity to take a hint.” Anyone who has participated in a treasure hunt knows that each clue is only part of the answer, yet each leads closer to the goal. Carson says that exploring nature with your child “is largely a matter of becoming receptive to what lies around you. It is learning again to use your eyes, ears, nostrils, and finger tips…” This “not knowing” is key because it will lead adult and child to the next clue together. Together they will learn more about the life and ways of an animal, bird, or tree. Together they will delve deeper into the mystery of how and why as they view the heavens. This is what companionship is all about.
Urban settings provide a unique, but not insurmountable, challenge. Growing a plant from a seed fascinates a child. So does the life cycle of a butterfly or a ladybug, available in kits for study in city schools. A cheap hand lens can turn a leaf into a patterned planet seen from a satellite, with rivers and tributaries flowing over its colored surface. A snowflake becomes a six-pointed star, the center of a common daisy a swirl of yellow spirals, a clump of lichen a mysterious forest. A nearby park, a single tree, or even a small bug or spider can offer a connection to things natural and interesting.
Whether in a rural or city setting, the biggest problem is how to battle the forces of distraction that have already taken root in the child and to understand just how important this battle is for the growing child’s future.
Writing decades before the onset of the information age, Jewish philosopher Abraham Heschel described this sense of awe as the root of faith and belief: “As civilization advances, the sense of wonder declines. Such decline is an alarming symptom of our state of mind. Mankind will not perish for want of information; but only for want of appreciation. The beginning of our happiness lies in the understanding that life without wonder is not worth living. What we lack is not a will to believe, but a will to wonder.”
Now, more than ever before, we need a societal reversal of priorities, starting in our homes. If we recognize that fostering a child’s innate sense of wonder is the single most important contribution an adult can make in a child’s life, we will begin to rid our children’s lives of distractions—showing our love by providing them connections to the natural world instead of the latest gadget or toy.
Without a sense of awe and reverence for the mysteries hidden in nature and in the heart of the human soul, the earth and its people become mere commodities to be abused and disposed of when their usefulness has been expended. Life loses its purpose and meaning and the lives of others have no value. How else can today’s random violence, corrosive greed, and the resulting destruction of our planet be explained except through a loss of this reverence and awe? But to the extent that we recover this sense of wonder—rediscovering it together with our children—there is hope for their future and the future of the earth they will inherit from us.
Reprinted from Plough Quarterly. Copyright © 2015 Plough Publishing House. Used with permission.