Guilt Trip Into the Woods

Guilt Trip Into the Woods

By Martha Nichols

spring2010_nicholsLast summer, my husband and I wrestled with where to take our seven-year-old son for vacation: Someplace wild and natural? Or a few days in New York City? Part of me longed to spend a week at the beach; we could turn off the computers, we could spend all day outside, we could commune with nature like poets or saints, or at least wiggle free of the media snake for a few hours. It would be good for our son, Nick, I told myself dutifully, even if I knew he’d rather listen to my iPod.

The Big Apple won out. We arrived in New York on a warm July day and headed straight to Times Square after dinner. Staring up at the ten-story movie ads, scrolling numbers, and cartoon characters, Nick danced as if the sidewalk were on fire. He gazed in wonder, like all the other tourists, many sitting in lawn chairs on one closed section of Broadway. He begged to go back to Times Square every night, and we did. My husband and I loved it, too, and more surprisingly, we loved our son’s response.

Maybe I was wrong to choose the asphalt jungle over the forest primeval. I’d always assumed that nature was better for my child than anything else. Oceans: beautiful, good. Giant M&M’s leaping on flat-panel displays: ugly, evil. But after witnessing Nick’s delight in Times Square, I began to feel not so much wrong as barraged by a dire message at every turn: Your child is being damaged by a lack of contact with nature. If you don’t fix it now, he will turn fat and fearful; he’ll be rudderless, adrift in a sea of enervating boredom.

My son is not a glassy-eyed blob tethered to a screen. He’s an enthusiastic dynamo, and his love of manga and anime and digital cameras and computer games and PowerPoint to create his own stories has made me question if nature has become his generation’s version of castor oil. Is it really true that Nick and all other children are in a state of natural crisis? Or is this just another round of Oldsters versus Youngsters, with boomer oldsters re-claiming a familiar refrain? These kids today are going to hell in a hand basket.

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Front and center in the movement to call kids back to nature is a book by journalist Richard Louv, Last Child in the Woods. Published in 2005, it was followed by an expanded paperback edition in 2008. That same year Louv received the Audubon Medal for, in the words of the National Audubon Society’s website, “sounding the alarm about the health and societal costs of children’s isolation from the natural world.” Louv is now the chairman of the Children & Nature Network, an organization that he co-founded in 2006 and which was sparked by his book. The nonprofit based in Santa Fe, with its “news service and portal” website, is devoted to promoting nature programs around the country and kicky slogans like “No Child Left Inside.”

Louv’s manifesto is deceptively calm in its early sections, almost sad, as if he knows he needs to reel in skeptics like me. In it, he argues that children are rapidly losing the free-roaming experience of outdoor play. Kids now know a lot about global warming, but few can name what birds they see in their own backyards. They’d rather stay inside, watching nature on TV, and for Louv, that’s a disaster.

His crusade is far from a lonely one. Since the publication of Last Child in the Woods, a mini-boomlet of nature activity books has appeared, including I Love Dirt!, Nature’s Playground, and The Green Hour: A Daily Dose of Nature for Happier, Healthier, Smarter Kids. The Children & Nature Network promotes everything from the Children in Nature Action Plan created by the National Park Service to learning gardens in Buffalo schools. (According to the website, “C&NN has identified over sixty regions that have either launched or are assembling grassroots campaigns to connect children with nature.”) Each book and campaign and after-school program urges parents to expose their kids to the great outdoors; each tap-taps away, creating yet another anxious drumbeat, hectoring us about what we’re doing wrong.

No parent believes kids should sit in front of a computer 24/7.  But I can’t help but feel irked by the hyperbole in statements like, “To take nature and natural play away from children may be tantamount to withholding oxygen.” And I object strongly to the assumptions behind Louv’s message. As a feminist and white adoptive mom of an Asian son, I’m disturbed by the belief that what’s “natural” is always best for kids. This feels like ’60s nostalgia—the kind that wishes women’s liberation and the Internet hadn’t ever come along to mess things up.

In addition, the back-to-nature movement demonizes its perceived enemy—the siren song of high-tech leisure options—to an unrealistic degree. A number of studies funded since 2006 by the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation have found that children’s involvement with digital media is not just passive and addictive. Whether they’re creating photo collages and videos, hip-hop mixes, blogging their own stories, or modifying the rules of video games, kids can become empowered creators online. They’re not only sexting and aping celebrities.

The more I examine the work of Louv and his brethren, the less I’m persuaded that when boomers share stories of magical childhood times in a tree, “their cultural, political, and religious walls come tumbling down” as he claims. I just don’t believe that wonder can be reduced to one essential experience any more than motherhood can. And perhaps most disturbing for environmentalist moms and dads, I’m discovering that the nature movement—green and forward-thinking as it appears at first blush—looks an awful lot like a conservative message cloaked with some liberal fig leaves.

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Last Child in the Woods isn’t telling a new story, but at the beat-me-whip-me level it’s an undeniably compelling one. Louv covers plenty of well-documented bad news, including the rise in childhood obesity, ADHD diagnoses, and electronic addiction.

Like most of my parent peers, I feel guilty—a lot. Every morning, when there’s barely enough caffeine in my system to cope, NPR seems to pummel me with stories about why our multi-tasking, Internet-chained pace isn’t good for kids.

“Generation M2: Media in the Lives of 8- to 18-Year-Olds,” a study released by the Henry J. Kaiser Family Foundation in January, presents an impressive array of data to demonstrate just how media-immersed children have become. Most shocking finding: Kids consume media an average of seven hours and thirty-eight minutes a day, “almost the amount of time most adults spend at work each day,” writes Victoria Rideout and her co-authors, “except that young people use media seven days a week instead of five.”

Whether nature is the only solution is the question.

I’m certainly on board when Louv says we need to teach children to be responsible stewards of the Earth because of the daunting environmental issues before us. He takes some of his best shots at gray-haired groups like the Sierra Club that until recently have done little to reach out to children, assuming kids are “extraneous to the serious adult work of saving the world.” He’s sharply critical of condo associations and other planned communities that don’t allow kids to stray from manicured paths or playgrounds, let alone construct tree houses in “off-limits” areas. Louv charts how suburban open space has both shrunk and become overly protected—what he calls “The Criminalization of Natural Play.” A 2002 U.S. Department of Agriculture report predicts that from 1982 to 2022, for example, forest acreage will decline by fifty percent.

Louv, a former columnist for the San Diego Union-Tribune, presents reams of research. He throws in caveats, too. “Like many parents,” he admits on page one, “I do tend to romanticize my own childhood.” Then comes the hook: “Americans around my age, baby boomers or older, enjoyed a kind of free, natural play that seems, in the era of kid pagers, instant messaging, and Nintendo, like a quaint artifact.”

His simplest arguments for how to address this “radical change” in nature awareness are the most profound. Kids don’t need to explore pristine wilderness; big cities include plenty of living things, too. He says children are often more captivated by “the mysteries of the ravine at the end of the cul de sac” than by a trip to the Grand Canyon. Louv’s “special place” as a child “was a ditch,” he writes, “dark with mystery, lined with grapevine swings, elms, and tangled bramble.”

It’s an appealing vision, one that doesn’t require adult direction or expensive programs. Louv’s personal stories are evocative, and I’m convinced his two sons benefited from fishing with their dad or scrabbling up desert canyons. But his tone can quickly shift to the annoyingly proscriptive. He’s got a mountain range of advice for parents:

Encourage your child to get to know a ten-square-yard area at the edge of a field, pond, or pesticide-free garden…. Together, keep a journal; encourage your child to describe, in words and pictures, that tattered bumblebee staggering across autumn leaves…. Later, at home, she can color the drawings and press a flower between the pages….

It sounds so orderly, so PC (don’t forget that “pesticide-free garden” for bringing the bugs to your kids rather than one of those dubious ditches from the 1950s). It’s like a lavishly illustrated picture book marketed to parents rather than kids: Mom and toddler study leaves together or share a hot chocolate after exploring the woods.

The thing is, I’m his audience. I, too, climbed the big pine tree in our backyard when I was a kid; my favorite book for years was The Golden Treasury of Natural History. I loved our late-night family trips across the Mojave Desert, Dad still worried our clunker Dodge would overheat, me in my undies, whipped by hot wind through the open windows. Initially I was drawn to Louv’s call for immersion in the natural world. Yet long before I finished Last Child in the Woods, I wanted to chuck it across the room.

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When I think about what my son would do with such nature activities, I have to laugh. He’s never been one to draw daisies in a journal if I suggest it. Instead he’d sketch a jousting tournament or a new comic strip, no matter how much I burble about the veins of a leaf. Or he’d rip the leaf apart—which for Louv might be just the ticket for a young naturalist—except that what fascinates Nick is the landscape inside his own head.

Of course some children enjoy pressing flowers. My son’s idiosyncrasies only illustrate that kids are passionate about a variety of things. But as with so many journalistic trend stories, Louv employs a largely anecdotal approach to make a bigger claim: that all children need nature—and if they don’t get the version he prescribes, they will be less joyful and alive.

Louv and fellow believers like Todd Christopher, author of The Green Hour, present themselves as valiant nature warriors facing a horde of technology Visigoths. What’s needed is nothing less than a new movement “to heal the separation of childhood and nature,” as Christopher writes in his preface. His idea is that families should spend at least one hour a day outside. On his own website, Christopher describes himself as co-founder of the National Wildlife Federation’s Green Hour campaign and its former director of online media (The Green Hour got its start as a website). The National Wildlife Federation is also home to magazines like Ranger Rick and Your Big Backyard.

The Green Hour is an attractively designed activity book stocked with nature facts. The activities themselves—make your own bird feeder, observe the clouds—are nothing new. What is new is the polemical introduction. The intended audience seems to be hypothetical moms who’ve only seen trees on TV. The activity instructions are written for both parents and children, the assumption being that adults should participate and shepherd things along. Yet the language has a grade-school science rah-rah tone. Lines like “Did You Know? Green leaves get their color from a pigment called chlorophyll” feel patronizing to me.

The Green Hour, like Last Child in the Woods, manages to up the anxiety level for parents while exhorting us to get over our fears of poison ivy and ticks. In “the world that flashes by on the screen of a television, computer, or video game,” Christopher writes, “the real danger … lies in how quickly children can be seduced into passivity and inactivity, their senses bombarded, overwhelmed, and ultimately diminished. Most sadly, it is the sense of wonder that seems to be first to go.”

Based on the Kaiser studies, it’s clear that children are immersed in media at record rates. But the fear this engenders in baby boomer breasts and the impassioned attacks it inspires go unexamined by Christopher or Louv. It’s just as easy to become a worried, hovering parent who nags kids to enjoy nature as it is to be the stereotypical achievement-oriented “indoor” helicopter. The only difference is the focus.

Parents must communicate their own joy and enthusiasm about nature to children, Louv maintains. To calm us competitive types, he argues against perfectionism in teaching nature to kids. A fellow parent, he’s even sympathetic: “Parents already feel besieged by the difficulty of balancing work and family life. Understandably, they may resist the idea of adding any to-dos to their long list of chores.”

Yet some parents simply may not enjoy camping or mucking in the garden or a “green hour.” Maybe we’re into updating our status lines with five hundred digital friends. Bookworms like me can read nature books to our kids (another Louv-approved activity), but the message here is that if you don’t like such nature-centric activities, you’d better ask yourself why and get religion.

“[T]he generations do not go to nature to find safety or justice,” Louv writes breathlessly at one point. “They go to find beauty.” I read this as an aesthetic choice, not an intrinsic truth. Many early religions were undoubtedly inspired by the natural elements at their wildest, and pulpits and temples around the world link nature with spiritual transcendence. But while awe of nature may go back to our ancestors in caves, “nature” can mean a lot of different things to different people, especially in the twenty-first century. Sure, nature is basic to all humans—and yet cities are basic to humans, too, along with our linguistic abilities and works of art.

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The underlying conservatism of nature believers means they’re so set against technology they often can’t see how to use it to promote their cause. This inevitably pits the generations against each other. Rideout of the Kaiser Family Foundation, who directs its program on media and health, emphasizes that Kaiser is “simply documenting” media use by children, not pronouncing against it. On the positive side, she told me in a recent interview, “Kids just love media. It’s entertaining; it’s fun; it’s relaxing; it’s soothing. It can expose kids to parts of the world and society that they wouldn’t otherwise see.”

Rideout’s tone is cautious rather than apocalyptic. “Media use can just kind of add up without you really noticing it,” she notes, just like a parent who has been there. The Kaiser study indicates that when parents put a few rules in place, media consumption by kids goes way down. Children with no televisions in their bedrooms watch much less TV, for instance. Media is also defined very broadly by the Kaiser researchers as everything from music and books to video games and TV, which puts the findings in a less grim light.

The point is that parents can influence their children’s choices without rejecting all the media goodies. But nature believers make almost no concessions to technology. They employ the abstinence language of other conservative parenting movements, assuming that saying no is the way to go, and if you don’t say no, your children will be lost forever in the virtual storm. They end up conjuring the same old bogey people: Those kids are out of control! Do you know where your child is tonight? Father knows best.

In some ways, it’s ironic that The Green Hour began on the Web. The book includes only the briefest mentions of using media devices to record nature sounds or a GPS system to play a tracking game. Christopher relegates nature-related websites to supplemental source boxes, separate from his activity text. Even Louv is more enthusiastic about kids using a digital camera to record their experiences outside.

Yet there are positive ways to frame the impact of media on contemporary family life. “In con­trast to the generational tensions that are so often emphasized in the popular media, families do come together around new media to share media and knowledge, play together, and stay involved in each other’s lives,” writes cultural anthropologist Mizuko Ito and her co-authors in the white paper “Living and Learning with New Media.” The paper summarizes the findings of the MacArthur-funded Digital Youth Project based on interviews, questionnaires, and observations of hundreds of children and teens. The project findings also appear in their 2009 MIT Press book Hanging Out, Messing Around, and Geeking Out.

Nature evangelists tend to pooh-pooh such alternate interpretations. Rather than acknowledging that there are multiple answers to problems like childhood obesity and boredom, Louv and others view nature as the best solution to a vast array of social ills. Their alarmist language is a signal that the real message is about parental control instead of engaging children on their own terms. A nature journal, for example, might be more enticing if kids could collage pictures and distribute their writing online. Of course that may not sound like the unstructured, free-roaming play Louv holds so dear. But neither do the nature activities in books like The Green Hour. Kids should roam freely, these writers seem to say, but only in parent-approved natural landscapes.

Back-to-nature claims are most suspect when they promote fear of where children go in their heads—or what they’re learning—while immersed in new media. That’s not to say parents should shrug their shoulders at Internet porn. But many digitally inclined educators claim we’ve reached a “profound moment” in the use of media by both children and adults, given that almost anyone can go to a public-library computer to self-publish and distribute content online. Though only a “teeny fraction” of kids are actually doing creative work with media, Rideout notes, “When kids take capabilities into their own hands, it’s thrilling to see the potential.”

Ito’s youthful hangers, messers, and geeks often create their own virtual worlds, be they landscapes with kid-oriented cartoons or new music that few parents can tolerate. Yet such virtual worlds don’t necessarily cause glazed eyeballs, passivity, and an inability to connect with others. Ito describes a case study of anime “fansubbers” who insert English and other subtitles into Japanese cartoons and distribute them online, working solely for the satisfaction it brings to millions of anime fans around the world.

Learning by trial and error is another skill touted as a special benefit of kids playing in the great outdoors. It’s not a stretch, however, to think such tinkering can involve building a backyard fort or fiddling with HTML code. According to Amanda Lenhart, senior research specialist at the Pew Research Center’s Internet & American Life Project, gaming and technological expertise in general often give children a sense that “I can solve problems my parents can’t solve—I’m teaching adults how to do things.” Such “self-direction” threatens adult authority; parents back off for the wrong reasons, freaked by the technology. But as Lenhart points out, kids get to fail constructively with video games in ways they aren’t allowed to do in school.

As far back as 1993, David Sobel, a nature advocate and education researcher, had his finger on why kids need retreats away from prying adult eyes. In Children’s Special Places: Exploring the Role of Forts, Dens, and Bush Houses in Middle Childhood, Sobel writes that the children in his study “expressed a need for privacy, independence, and self-sufficiency. Through making their own places, children start to carve out a place for themselves in the world.”

It’s possible these special places today are online tree houses, with far more room for messing around than a physical nook. I’d even venture that children may roam through virtual landscapes for the same reasons we used to spend all day outside away from mom and dad, taking bikes down a hill we called “Dead Man’s Curve.”

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Nature believers go beyond saying that immersion in nature will add richness to children’s lives; they also argue that it can be uniquely therapeutic. While it may seem intuitively obvious that kids who play outside are less obese, there’s little hard data to back up claims that nature in itself melts off pounds. Certainly playing outside can raise a child’s physical activity level, give kids more free time, and cut down on TV watching. But whether you need nature to get more exercise or free time is not at all clear.

One especially suspect pseudo-scientific explanation pops up in The Green Hour. In a “Did You Know?” box, Christopher writes, “The negatively charged hydrogen ions in sea spray may be to thank for the happy, relaxed feeling we get at the seashore. Those ions neutralize harmful free radicals in our bodies and help to stabilize our levels of serotonin—a brain chemical associated with sleep and mood.” His source? An article in the Daily Telegraph, a conservative English newspaper, which doesn’t attribute any research for this nugget. Flinging around words like “serotonin” makes it sound valid. Maybe it’s true; maybe it’s snake oil. Some people also believe the thundering waters of Niagara Falls increase one’s libido—so should we keep our underage children out of earshot?

Louv, a more critical synthesizer of research, acknowledges that to date there’s not much empirical evidence for the benefits of nature to children. (To be fair, there isn’t much evidence for technology’s impact on children’s lives, either.) When it comes to nature’s therapeutic effect on kids with ADHD, for example, he notes that the research “is in its infancy, and easily challenged.” Yet that doesn’t stop him from talking about “Nature’s Ritalin” or coining the phrase “nature-deficit disorder.”

The most suggestive studies of nature’s impact on attention in children that Louv cites come from the University of Illinois’s Human-Environment Research Laboratory. In a 2001 study, Andrea Faber Taylor, Frances Kuo, and William Sullivan turned up definite correlations between the time ADD kids spend doing “green activities” and more focused attention afterwards. Yet this study was based on 96 questionnaires filled out by parents, not direct observations of kids by researchers.

In another study, Taylor and her colleagues found that the amount of greenery inner-city Chicago girls can see from their windows makes them more self-disciplined and able to delay gratification longer. (They didn’t find a similar link between green views and self-discipline in boys.) After a two-sentence gloss of the findings, Louv leaps to a more sweeping claim, stating that even such minimal exposure to nature will help a girl “do better in school, handle peer pressure, and avoid dangerous, unhealthy, or problem behaviors.”

Pundits do this all the time, of course, highlighting whatever fits the story. That doesn’t mean Louv’s advocacy is necessarily a cynical manipulation. He clearly cares about his subject. But the problem in political terms is that scarce dollars for enrichment programs flow to topics that get the most hype.

“[T]his ‘get them out to the woods’ movement is at least a century old,” writes Patrick Boyle, editor of Youth Today, in recent e-mail correspondence with me. “[O]rganizations … have been trying to get urban kids out of cities for their physical and mental health for ages. It was the premise of the Boy Scouts of America. It was also a main idea behind the National Youth Administration started by FDR. … There has always been an assumption that this is a good thing, and lots of anecdotes from adults about how much they valued such time as kids. You’d have a hard time measuring the impact of such a thing.”

As Youth Today, a national trade paper about youth services, has been documenting for years, assessing the long-term benefits of any program is dicey. And when Louv praises recent projects like IslandWood in Washington state’s Puget Sound, he doesn’t seem to recognize that a glitzy “outdoor learning center,” underwritten by software magnates, competes for dollars with other youth agencies.

Many would make a case that what kids today need—particularly at-risk kids—is caring adults, whether they’re looking at lizards together, acting in a play, taping videos of their neighborhood, or playing basketball. In fact, there is a growing body of research to support the importance of mentorship through organizations like Big Brothers Big Sisters. Martial arts schools also claim some of the same benefits for children as Louv ascribes to nature: self-confidence, self-discipline, a quiet mind. For Louv, however, nature supports all things good, be it finger-painting or meditation.

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There’s no question that modern children have been affected by the lack of open space for play, notes Steven Mintz in Huck’s Raft (2004), a history of childhood in America from colonial times to the present. But Mintz also makes clear that the days of yore weren’t always golden. He opens by contrasting nostalgic notions of Huckleberry Finn dawdling down the Mississippi with author Mark Twain’s “real-life mid-nineteenth-century Hannibal,” which “was anything but a haven of stability and security. It was a place where a quarter of the children died before their first birthday, half before their twenty-first.” Subversive Huck, arguably an icon for natural living with dirty hands, isn’t soothed by nature. As Mintz notes, this fictional boy has been likened by critics to an abused child or at-risk youth; he’s even been called an ADHD sufferer.

Over the course of our country’s history, Mintz says, the biggest shift for children has been “a marked increase in diversity.” That includes an unmatched level of affluence for some, yet a dramatic increase in childhood poverty for others. One of the main myths Mintz debunks “is that childhood is the same for all children, a status transcending class, ethnicity, and gender. In fact, every aspect of childhood is shaped by class,” he writes. This is a far more nuanced interpretation of what’s happening to kids, and the changes may not be all bad.

Today’s nature evangelists like Louv make token nods to economic and cultural differences but mainly in service of helping the underprivileged get the nature faith. Louv knocks the trend toward including “race-relations and other cultural/political programs at camps.” He writes, “These are important discussions in a democracy, but childhood is short.”

Not that short.

Nowhere does the nature faith reveal its retro foundations more than in its avoidance of debates about social change. You could say this is just a matter of values or funding priorities. Nature versus Multiculturalism. But what I find insidious about eco-child talk is its liberal, inclusive guise. Extolling Nature with a capital N reinforces a largely white, privileged value system that doesn’t emphasize kids’ connecting with other people. It effectively turns a whole lot of social and political inequalities invisible.

To believe that nature is an elemental truth is to deny that love can jump across biological or tribal boundaries—that adoptive families, for example, form bonds that are just as natural as those made by sperm and egg. It’s to ignore how mutable identity is for an Asian adoptee like my son or for teens creating MySpace profiles or for immigrant children who exist in different worlds at home and at school. If you follow this thread under the rational-sounding surface of Last Child in the Woods, we’re right back to real women birthin’ babies and the rest of us female workaholics being the reason for “the end of natural experience,” as Louv puts it.

When it comes to gender, there are glaring omissions in Last Child in the Woods. Mintz and countless other social commentators have remarked on the march of women into the work force since the 1970s. Yet in Last Child in the Woods, there’s not one mention of the women’s movement. Louv always refers to “parents.” At times, he mentions two working parents or single parents, but rarely does “mother” appear except in “Mother Nature.”

In a book that’s all about children, this is a telling gap. The particular challenges facing working moms have been excised. It may seem politically correct not to blame women for the loss of those relaxed and playful days of old. But in not naming this social trend and its legacy, Louv skirts a forthright discussion of why family lifestyles have changed. He would never say that working mothers should ditch feminist goals and return home for the sake of their kids. But as with every so-called contemporary parenting crisis, the usual suspects are left holding the bag.

Take stranger danger. “Fear is the most potent force that prevents parents from allowing their children the freedom they themselves enjoyed when they were young,” Louv exhorts. “Fear is the emotion that separates a developing child from the full, essential benefits of nature.”

Fear, worry, hovering—when these labels are leveled at “parents,” they’re not very subtle code for female. Leaving aside the question of whether little girls and boys felt the same degree of freedom in the ’50s and ’60s, how we’re supposed to stop feeling anxious when young children are out on their own is never really explained.

For parents who need more time with children to spur them towards nature, Louv offers this bromide: “Sympathetic employers can help.” Right. Then he adds, in an almost offhand way, that some parents opt to stay at home to help their kids, “either with home businesses or in the traditional stay-at-home role.” Again, just who those parents are, and whether they have the economic means to live by a canyon or near the woods or even want a suburban existence that implies a long commute, remains unexplored.

Any form of intensive-parenting advice—and Last Child in the Woods is as intensive as it gets—comes down to a lot of work on the part of adults. These days, both moms and dads are putting in the hours. But ignoring the fact that women do the majority of childcare, and by extension much of the staring at stars and nature journaling, doesn’t make the inequity go away. And praising the benefits of kids’ roaming outside on their own yet shaking a fearful finger at the virtual worlds those kids might also want to explore strikes me as one whopping contradiction.

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“Girls have really taken to opportunities to being creative online,” says Amanda Lenhart of the Pew Research Center. She and other observers note that teens are energized by finding an audience online without adult gatekeepers. “It’s a really powerful incentive to create,” Lenhart says, “to have their words heard in a public space.”

“I don’t think that the Internet is such an evil it needs to be doled out in tiny bites,” she adds. “We need to be careful about expecting children to be just like we were. Different doesn’t necessarily mean bad.”

For Louv, though, childhood is broken and needs to be fixed. Nature is bedrock reality, our “biophilia” is hard-wired, and “the child in nature is an endangered species.” The societies we construct are chump change compared to Mother Earth. Louv quotes one oceanographer as saying, “Reality is the final authority; reality is what’s going on out there, not what’s in your mind or on your computer screen.”

For me, a ’70s girl who fantasized about Paris and London, Isaac Asimov’s Foundation series, and gender-bending, reality in this reductive sense was never the final authority. As a kid, I spent plenty of time wandering the California hills above my suburban tract. But my brother and I also holed up at home on many summer afternoons, taping our own science-fiction radio show. The script included immortal lines like “We are the Phabians from the Planet Phabia! Third planet from our star!”

Louv would nod his head in earnest approbation; we were indulging in unstructured play. But I think he’d also say the hills got our creative juices flowing, when in reality we were more influenced by Star Trek re-runs and David Bowie’s The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars.

In my case, reading The Lord of the Rings was a signal event, too, one I remember far more vividly than camping trips. Louv also extols J.R.R. Tolkien’s Rings saga; he rightly notes that Tolkien’s vision was driven by the devastation of two world wars and the Oxford don’s mourning for the disappearing English countryside. Yet for Louv, the trilogy’s main value is in its nature descriptions.

Personally, I never cared much about the Hobbits or their simple way of life. It was the epic battle between good and evil, that very small hero walking right up the slopes of Mount Doom. It was the immortal Elves I loved; yes, they lived in magical trees or other super-saturated natural landscapes, but these were the imaginary realms of Maxfield Parrish and the Pre-Raphaelites, not of John Muir or Foxfire Book hippies.

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There’s nothing like an actual living, breathing child to bring a parent up short, to turn what seems to be the best advice in the world into mush. Standing in Times Square that warm July night, I knew my city mouse was thrilled by life.

I see many good reasons for worrying about pollution, shrinking wilderness areas, and corporate control of media. But the back-to-nature movement, like all parenting movements, has political and social ramifications. Whether conservatives are wearing pinstripes or all-natural fabrics, the bottom line is that they don’t want the world to change. The proof is in the way they dismiss anyone with a different take, especially the next generation of storytellers, those darn kids who aren’t interested in describing their parents’ world.

I don’t believe children need nature more than all the other things we’re supposed to be giving them. It’s not that I think we should start trashing the nearest national park with our SUVs. I remain an ardent environmentalist, hiker, and birder. Yet my own romance with nature does not mean my son needs to feel the same attachment—or that a different attitude will doom him and his entire postmodern generation.

It’s not an either-or proposition: nature versus technology; country versus city. You can have both landscapes in your life and go everywhere your imagination leads. Nature is certainly one road to transcendence, and it can be a powerful tonic. Take, for instance, the opening lines of an essay, “The Sense of Wonder,” by pioneer environmentalist Rachel Carson:

One stormy autumn night when my nephew Roger was about twenty months old I wrapped him in a blanket and carried him down to the beach in the rainy darkness. Out there, just at the edge of where-we-couldn’t-see, big waves were thundering in, dimly seen white shapes that boomed and shouted and threw great handfuls of froth at us. Together we laughed for pure joy—he a baby meeting for the first time the wild tumult of Oceanus, I with the salt of half a lifetime of sea love in me.

Her lovely essay, which first appeared in a women’s magazine in 1956, underscores in a few paragraphs what Louv takes almost four hundred pages to argue. Carson’s main point is that adults can renew their own joy by observing a child in action. “If I had influence with the good fairy who is supposed to preside over the christening of all children,” she writes, “I should ask that her gift to each child in the world be a sense of wonder so indestructible that it would last throughout life….”

Stoking this wonder, whether inspired by bright city lights or the pounding surf, really does seem the greatest gift we give our children. Nature isn’t the only source of wonder: We could talk about the connections children make with other people, whether by blood or the mysterious meshing of shared passions. We could talk about why exploring great cities can induce a sense of wonder, too.

In Times Square, what attracted Nick most were the street artists who drew caricatures. All those we saw were Asian, and he ran from one to the next, watching carefully when one formed a whole face by starting with the nose. He sat for a drawing of himself, amazed that anybody could capture him in just a few lines.

Although I haven’t learned more about nature since the arrival of Nick, his wonder at the most unexpected things has sparked me. We are both talkers. We love our own ideas; we like to flail at the conventional wisdom. Here is my Asian child, not born of my body, his dark eyes taking in ninja cartoons and clouds scudding across the Halloween moon with equal awe. With my blue eyes, there’s nothing natural about how we came together. But I’m awed by what he’s found.

*   *   *

Author’s Note: Nick has just turned eight, and I confess I sometimes worry about him being swallowed by the media maw. I’m worried about my own digital immersion, too. I blog away, he itches to get on the computer, my husband succumbs, and we all try to find some screen-time balance. Last night Nick asked if I knew what a Webkinz was. “Yes,” I answered cautiously. “I’m designing a website,” he said next. I knew this was a fantasy, but I played along. It would have “games and stuff,” he added when Annoying Mom pushed. But more than that, Nick and a friend had been inspired by the stuffed animals they’d sewn in their after-school program. “We decided to call them Stichkinz,” my son said.

Am I wrong for finding this clever? A handmade toy facsimile of a tiger (without a tail) rethought as a web creation? I’ve never been very literal-minded. Before dinner, sometimes we hurl blankets at each other like the anime characters who “bend” water and earth in The Last Airbender. It’s our family version of a green hour.

Martha Nichols is Editor-in-Chief of Talking Writing, an online literary magazine and nonprofit organization based in Boston. She also teaches in the journalism program at the Harvard University Extension School. Her son is now twelve and obsessed with Magic: The Gathering and first-person shooters, although he consents to mountain climbing on occasion.

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