New West

By Todd Wilkinson

A family hikes the Bunsen Peak Trail in Yellowstone, photo courtesy Jim Peaco/NPS

The New West: Nature helps kids relate positively to the world

By Todd Wilkinson

When was the last time you heard local law enforcement officials blame violent behavior and drug use in our kids on teenagers spending too many hours outdoors, recreating, in nature?

When have you ever been warned by pediatricians arguing that kids who like to hike with their parents have higher rates of obesity and juvenile diabetes than their counterparts?

In the daily newspaper, I read an observation once from a county sheriff who expressed his opinion that many recent young offenders committing criminal acts had a passion for playing video games in which simulated murder and virtual bloodletting were the skill sets needed to “win.”

Is it true? Well, the research says it’s complicated and it’s a topic better left for another time.

The real question is: should any of us be surprised by what the sheriff said? Are we parents paying attention? I’ve been fascinated by this topic for years.

Even here in the rural wild West, in communities such as ours where opportunities for enjoying nature abound, many of our kids are chronically detached from an environment that sharpens their senses—and, as studies say, sense of empathy— rather than deadens it. “Nature-deficit disorder” was first coined by Richard Louv in his book “Last Child in the Woods” a couple of decades ago.

The problem of “nature-deficit disorder” struck home when I helped organize a camping trip for pre-teen players on the hockey team I coached several years back. The mom and dad of one of the boys graciously invited us out to their ranch on the edge of a mountain range for a retreat.

My goal was to build team camaraderie by removing the boys from an environment that was routinely familiar to them. We spent a couple of days there hiking, swimming, shooting hockey pucks against a makeshift net along the side of a barn, catching snakes, watching badgers, feeding the horses, and being out there exposed to the ambient elements.

During our sojourn, it quickly became apparent that some of the kids, despite living in the Gallatin Valley their entire lives, had never been on a hike or hunt to the national forest that begins two miles from their front door.

They had never seen a garter snake in the wild, never held a frog, never enjoyed an evening counting stars in the night sky. They had never played in a natural setting long enough not to fear it.

I was floored.

Here’s an astounding revelation that Louv offered in an interview more than a decade ago with Sarah Karnasiewicz of when she asked if nature-deficit is most acute in cities.

“A major study came out….that said that the rate of obesity in children is growing faster in rural areas than it is in cities and suburbs,” Louv said. “Again, it seems counterintuitive. But it’s not so counterintuitive when you think about the fact that the family farm is fairly nonexistent now. Kids in rural areas are playing the same video games, watching the same television, and they’re on longer car rides.”

Studies show and Louv’s book made clear the pandemic of future health care costs, learning problems and an inability to relate to one another on human terms that we’re foisting on young people.

We’re compromising their ability to foster tangible, physical connections to the world around them and hampering their ability to verbally express their emotional response. Where did we go wrong?

The catalysts, experts say, are many beyond the lack of attentive, conscientious parenting. Louv says we’re filling our kids’ lives up, in some cases, not only with over-choreographed activities and electronic gadgetry that undermine their ability to think for themselves, but we’ve made them fearful of going outside based upon an exaggerated sense of danger.

Louv takes a shot at lawyers and overbearing parents. “What we usually design is really more ‘lawyer-friendly’ [parks] than ‘child-friendly’,” Louv said. “This is a litigious society, and a lot of the places you are talking about have been designed by attorneys, not park designers. But there is interplay between the fear of lawsuits and [parents’] fear of a ‘bogeyman’ that is going to hurt their children — indeed, they almost have become one and the same.”

The National Recreation and Park Association reported that 75 percent of Americans live within a two-mile walking distance of a public park. Public health officials will tell you there’s far greater danger posed to your kid’s safety and health from physical inactivity and all the grams of processed sugar they’re ingesting than from child predators.

We were warned more than a generation ago. During the 1990s, Louv observed, the radius around the home where children were allowed to roam, due to parental paranoia, had shrunk to one-ninth of what it had been two decades earlier.

As Louv noted, restoring our kids’ relationship to the wild West may not be a balm for all of society’s ills but it’s not a bad place to start. Teaching them to keep their eye on nature and not fixed to a screen helps them relate better to the world. It also reminds them to lift their heads up and see a bigger, more inspiring horizon.

About The Author

The New West, Todd Wilkinson

Todd Wilkinson has been an award-winning journalist for more than three decades and is best known for his coverage of the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem. His work has appeared in publications ranging from National Geographic to The Guardian and The Washington Post. He also is author of several critically-acclaimed books. His column, The New West, was not long ago named best column for small-town newspapers in America. He is founder of the non-profit, online journalism site, Mountain Journal ( devoted to probing the intersection between people and nature in the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem.

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