Reflections on how we come to know the natural world and strengthen our relationship with it
by Michelle Kelly
If everyone is wearing MP3 headphones and a tree falls in the forest, does it still go “CRASH!”?
“Nature deficit disorder”— sounds catchy, doesn’t it?! Although it may not be contagious, it is on the rise. It is well known that kids today are spending much less time outdoors than did previous generations. And scientific research is directly linking less time in nature in the lives of today's electronically wired generation—to some very negative consequences, including some of the most disturbing recent childhood trends: the increases in obesity, attention disorders, and depression. Richard Louv, in his book Last Child in the Woods, refers to these trends as “nature-deficit” (Louv, 2008).
Additionally, growing scientific evidence is emerging to support the theory that because humans possess a biological need to affiliate with natural systems and processes, particularly during the important formative childhood years, a relationship with nature is critical to children’s health, productivity, physical and mental well being, and health (Kellert and Wilson 1993, Kellert 2005, Louv 2008, Children and Nature Network 2009). Neuroscientists and other scholars are continuing to uncover what is appearing to be the increasing deleterious effects of free, outdoor play deprivation on children’s learning, creativity, and on their cognitive, social and emotional development.
The extraordinary formative influence of nature in children’s health and development underscores that connection with nature is not just a matter of physical fitness and intellectual capacity, but emotional capacity, identity, basic values, and even our moral and spiritual condition as well. The well springs of human motivation, the origins of our fitness and survival, evolutionarily emerged from our inherent inclination to affiliate with the natural world, what noted scientists and authors Stephan R. Kellert, Professor of Social Psychology at Yale University, and E.O. Wilson, Professor in the Department of Organismic and Evolutionary Biology at Harvard University, and their colleagues have labeled, “biophilia” (Wilson 1984, Kellert and Wilson 1993, Kellert 1997, 2005).
I’m thinking that perhaps the symptoms of Nature Deficit Disorder is not attributable solely to a “deficit of nature”. Could the symptoms be pointing to an even more fundamental cause, perhaps? Maybe something has gone awry with kids’ “well springs of human motivation” – or emotions - that underlie and “motivate” the human inclination to affiliate with the natural world. Is there a kind of a misconnection in kids’ emotional wiring contributing to the alienation from their biophilic nature that scientists are recognizing in today’s “wired” generation?
It makes sense that we experience, come to know and connect with the outside world through our senses. And, if kids are not spending time outside, they certainly are not sensing nature, and apparently, they are not connecting with nature. But, not only is the amount of time kids spend inside at issue, but what they are doing while indoors is also of concern. Nature Deficit Disorder, as coined by Richard Louv, is exemplified by a young boy’s response to a question concerning his favorite place to play: “I like to play indoors,” the boy said, “’cause that’s where all the electrical outlets are."
Headphones tuned-in to TV, the Internet, movies, games, music, and more have today’s kids electronically connected, sensitizing their minds to the signals and trends of technology. While studies show they are simultaneously becoming “nature-disconnected”, their physical senses desensitized and less tuned-in to bird songs, the buzzing of bees and that tree crashing in the woods along with the rest of nature’s complex and dynamic symphony.
Devoid of nature’s harmonics, it seems connection to the natural world is replaced with affinities for the attractions of our technological civilization. And less “in-tune” with the natural world, a number of ailments are increasingly impairing the development of children and compromising their abilities to identify, develop, compose and contribute their own internal "music" for their own and society’s benefit – and impacting how well they socially “harmonize” with others.
In our techno-society, studies reveal that on average, we now spend over 95% of our lifetime indoors. Headphones are great for turning up the volume and not disturbing anyone else in the house. However, the research is showing that it’s pretty difficult to come to truly know nature’s symphony, develop your potential talents and strengths, and hone the skills needed to creatively , cooperatively and sustainably address today’s and tomorrow’s ever more complex social and environmental problems if you’re never fully engaged in nature’s concert hall! This is serious stuff, and headphones or not - more people are becoming concerned. Is the answer to Nature Deficit Disorder: simply unplugging today’s kids and sending them outside to play or to go fishing?
In addressing this question, it seems to make sense to disconnect from my laptop, walk outside for a moment to reflect and dis-cover the foundation of my own sense of connection with the natural world: Breathing the fresh air in deeply and tuning in my senses with memories of my outdoor experiences, I’m suddenly thinking of the last time I was walking through a tall-grass prairie and hearing the vibrant “ee-o-lay” of a speckle-breasted wood thrush and feeling cheered by its song; canoeing across the middle of a sparkling blue lake feeling exuberant and renewed by the cool breezes on my skin. Lying in the snow and gazing up at the distinct constellations in a star-filled January night-time sky - feelings of awe and wonder are piqued by the night’s stillness and winter’s chilly sting. Oh, how spending time outdoors are filled with deeply-rooted emotions that light up my senses!
With my sensitivities thus ignited, and heightened, I am better able to see nature streaming indoors too. When I come home my dog greets me with his tail wagging wildly and his silly smiling eyes, and my house plants’ shimmer in the afternoon sun, nature’s goodness is easily savored and sustains me. In my kitchen, smelling the spicy scent of cinnamon wafting from a piece of warm apple pie not long out of the oven I take a bite, and in tasting I’m bound with the tree that produced the tart apples now dancing on my tongue. Over tea at my table in heart-to-heart conversation with good friends, I feel a warm natural connection radiating through me and between us with the lilting communication and I can easily weave the comfort I feel living in a supportive neighborhood into my feeling of connection with the whole of nature.
“I go to nature to be soothed and healed, and to have my senses put in order." - John Burroughs
It appears that my sensitivities are indeed sharpened through regular immersion in the natural world, literally tuning-in my senses to more readily and fully connect with nature sensations. But I’m noticing something else that’s key, I think. It really seems that it’s the emotions that each new sensation and memory triggers in me, rather than the signal or stimulus itself, that are enabling me to feel, associate and assign meaning to the images, smells, tastes, touches, sounds that I experience in the world. In feeling an emotional connection, I know I’m connected. And in knowing, I am consciously connected.
Aware of my connection with the natural world, I can more easily recognize and feel my connection with nature everywhere - in my home, with others and in my community. The emotions I feel inside tell me I am connected. By looking inwards and with practiced attention to and presence with my emotions, I am able to experience with great awareness nature’s abundance flowing through me - with each sip of water and every breath I take.
It feels like my sense of connection with nature comes from the inside-out – from my emotions and through my senses. Wherever I am, I can feel my human nature is clearly natural!
“Wherever you are, look up, Hannah. The clouds are lifting, the sun is breaking through. We are coming out of the darkness.” – The Great Dictator (1940)
“Act like wherever you are, that’s the place to be.” – Fast Times at Ridgemont High (1982)
“I just hope wherever you are… you know that you did make a difference.” – Dungeons & Dragons (2000)
“Where-ever you are, you will always be in my heart.” – Gandhi, 1982
“But you’ll find Upendi wherever you are … underneath the sun. Upendi means love, doesn’t it? …Welcome to Upendi.” - The Lion King II: Simba’s Pride (1998)
So, I think our emotions may provide the swiftest path back to our forgotten nature, to our biophilic selves. Connection seems to require a wakefulness, consciousness, and present attention to emotions. And it feels like my emotions are self-reinforcing: my feelings of connection enable me to be more aware, consciously open and receptive to my own nature as well as to the presence of nature wherever I am.
“The feeling is often the deeper truth, the opinion the more superficial one. “ ~Augustus William Hare and Julius Charles Hare, Guesses at Truth, by Two Brothers, 1827
I am speaking about emotions from my own experience, but the 1827 quote above expresses it, as well: “The feeling is often the deeper truth,..” As I think about how best we might reconnect kids with the natural world, perhaps, effectively address Nature Deficit Disorder requires reconnecting kids to themselves through deliberately illuminating an inside awareness of and practiced conscious presence with their own feelings and emotions along with encouragement to take off their headphones and go play outside, or go fishing.
You might be feeling you’d like to do some experimenting with this idea. The next time you take kids outside to a park, or to the neighborhood pier to go fishing, wait for when the moment seems right and venture a whimsical question asking, “How does the sun shining on your skin make you feel?”, and thoughtfully asking, “ How do you feel when the birds are singing?” You might try asking, “Have you ever thought about how it might feel if you were to never hear a bird sing again?” That’s a pretty serious question. You can lighten things up as you are laughing together at hair-dos mussed by the breezes blowing across the lake while the kids fish, and wondering aloud asking, “What do you think that tree overhead might be feeling with its “tree feelings” as the breeze rustles it’s crown of leaves?” Think of ways to help kids uncover their emotions and ask them to experience and take note of - and feel how the rhythms of nature are awakening their senses, and you might just be helping them to “put their senses in order”.
Now, how does the following statement feel to you? “To feel a part of any system, one has to be in emotional communication with it – perceiving it from the inside-out: with all one’s senses – consciously.”
The Biophilia Hypothesis informs us that every child is a vital part of and intrinsically inseparable from nature. And even more profoundly, each is a unique expression of the whole of nature with a creative part to play in its unfolding symphony.
Each child is the composer writing the music their own instrument will play as they mature and join our society’s orchestra. I am convinced that kids will come to know this –not just by stepping outside, but, once they are outside - by also learning to stop, practicing looking inside themselves, getting acquainted with their emotions, discovering their own instrument (their own strengths and purpose), tuning all of their senses in the natural world and feeling the music they are each pre-wired to write - in harmony with nature, I bet they’ll hear the birds singing and the startling “CRASH” as that tree makes them jump with excitement when it falls in the woods… if they are listening.
In next issue’s Thinking Inside-Out column, we’ll take an inside look at our senses, examining what senses we are equipped with and how we can help children learn to use these sense to awaken themselves to nature all around them.