When I was growing up in London, Ontario, in the early 1950s, back doors would flap open between 5:30 and 6 p.m., and parents would call Johnny or Mary to come home for dinner. We'd be out playing in the park, empty lot, or nearby ditch or creek. Back then, there wasn't a television station in London, and the few folks with TV sets had to capture signals from Cleveland or Detroit and watch shadowy black-and-white images made worse by electronic snow. There were no computers, cell phones, iPods, or digital anything. Our fun was outdoors.
Now, according to author Richard Louv, only six per cent of nine- to 13-year-old children in the U.S. play outside in a typical week. This is reflected by a dramatic decline in fishing, swimming, and even biking. Mr. Louv, cofounder of the Children and Nature Network, noted that in San Diego, "90 percent of inner-city kids do not know how to swim" and "34 percent have never been to the beach."
I live near the ocean in Vancouver, and when my children were in primary school, I would watch the tide charts for exceptionally low tides so I could take my daughters' classes to the beach. It always surprised me to see how many of the kids had never been to a "wild" beach. Some were timorous about walking about in the muck of a tidal flat. Most had never rolled over a rock to find crabs, blennies, and anemones. Often, the immediate reaction was "Yuk," but I never found a child who wasn't entranced within a few minutes to find these natural wonders.
Now that I'm an old man, my sentiments may simply reflect nostalgia for the "good old days". Children today find it hard to fathom the world of my childhood. "What did you do?" they ask in amazement. They can't imagine a world without all the electronic accoutrements of their instant plugged-in world.
The eminent Harvard biologist E.O. Wilson coined the term biophilia, referring to our need to affiliate with other species (bio = life; philia = love). He believes this is built into our genes, a reflection of our evolutionary roots. In cities, we increasingly work against our biophilic needs by instilling a biophobia. We teach our children by the way we react to nature's intrusion into our homes: Take that out. Don't touch. It might bite.
This is a problem because the way we treat the world around us is a direct reflection of our values and beliefs. Compare the way we treat another species when we believe it is our biological kin rather than just a resource, commodity, or opportunity. The way we see the world shapes the way we treat it, and we will only protect what we know and love.
But our cities have developed with more regard to the needs of cars and commerce than people. When a father has to go to court to fight for the right of kids to play road hockey, you know something is wrong.
Globalization has disconnected us from the real world as we purchase products for their brand names without regard to the source of the raw materials or where and under what conditions the components were manufactured and assembled. Food no longer reflects seasons or locale. It becomes easier to focus on the economy and consumption while forgetting the real source of everything we need and use, namely nature.
Our children have exchanged the experience of outdoors and nature with the enclosed world of electronics, resulting in "nature deficit disorder". For those of us who are concerned about the state of the biosphere, this is disturbing because a person for whom nature is a stranger will not notice, let alone care about, environmental degradation.
That's why many environmentalists are concerned with the way young people are growing up. Computers, television, video games, and the Internet offer information and entertainment in a virtual world without the hazards or discomfort of mosquitoes, rain and cold, steep climbs, or "dangerous" animals of the real world — and without all the joys that the real world has to offer. Unless we are willing to encourage our children to reconnect with and appreciate the natural world, we can't expect them to help protect and care for it.