There's been a lot of talk lately about "free-range kids" and the changing nature of what it means to be a kid today. The consensus seems to be that kids are spending less time roaming around on their own, perhaps leading to a lessened sense of independence relative to what their parents experienced. Certainly, the ever-increasing consumption of media by kids and teenagers can be partially blamed for an attendant rise in childhood obesity. But what about that other factor of urbanized living -- contact with nature?
More and more psychologists are arguing that contact with nature is what makes us human -- nature being where our brains and beings developed over the last few hundred thousand years -- and alienation from nature, with which we have an innate bond, is a serious problem, especially for kids. Aptly, the movement has been termed "ecopsychology," and it holds that modern society operates under the illusion that human beings are separate from nature -- but the truth is that we're much more likely to find inspiration and spiritual nourishment and all that other good stuff in nature than in the artificial constructs of our homes and suburbs and cities.
A recent Scientific American article looks at the work of author and theorist Theodore Roszak, widely considered the father of ecopsychology: "Distancing ourselves from nature, Roszak maintains, has negative psychological consequences for people and also leads to ecological devastation at the hands of a society that, as a result, lacks empathy for nature." The core of the mind, he believes, is the ecological unconscious, "which, if repressed, can lead to an 'insane' treatment of nature. 'For ecopsychology, repression of the ecological unconscious is the deepest root of collusive madness in industrial society,' he writes, adding that "open access to the ecological unconscious is the path to sanity.'"
As a result, some therapists have begun incorporating ecopsychological tenets in their treatment of patients. Not unlike pet therapy, in which dogs and cats interact with sick people and shut-ins to enhance their mood, one's psychological health can be boosted by contact with nature: hikes, wilderness retreats and "joining in Earth-nurturing activities such as environmental restoration or advocacy work."
Getting kids involved with nature and the outdoors is viewed by ecopsychology fans as key to their development, especially in the technological age we occupy now. Richard Louv, author of the book, Last Child in the Woods: Saving Our Children from Nature Deficit Disorder, argues that kids are so plugged into television and video games that they've lost their connection to the natural world. This disconnect, Louv maintains, has led not only to poor physical fitness among our youth (including obesity), but also long-term mental and spiritual health problems. His work has sparked a worldwide movement to introduce more kids to the wonders of nature through various planned and spontaneous activities.
Want more proof? Check out this BBC article, published today: "Green Spaces Reduce Health Gap."