I remember one Sunday when my son Silas was about 6-years-old. He and I spent the entire day in the woods.
That was before he cared that there wasn’t television or video games at our house.
Later, when I heard the term "nature deficit disorder," I would remember days like that Sunday and think that maybe I hadn’t, as a parent, done everything wrong.
Silas and I slid down the deep ravine behind our house and headed toward the creek, a silver glint beneath magnolia trees. When we got to the only spot that was deep enough to bathe, two red-shouldered hawks commenced to call nearby, alarmed.
"They must be nesting," I said. "Let’s see." Silas and I plunged through cinnamon fern and dog hobble until he spotted the nest, 50 feet up.
The parent birds, wild with worry, never stopped circling and crying.
"Let’s leave them alone," I whispered.
Here’s what Silas and I did the rest of the day. We gathered stones, looking for fossils, then skimmed them. We rubbed clay on our faces. We built a sand fort and floated magnolia leaf boats downstream. We crossed the creek balanced on a high log.
Richard Louv, in his book Last Child in the Woods, says that research increasingly proves that children who have been exposed to nature early and often respond to life in ways that more home-bound children do not.
Children who play in natural environments test higher in concentration and self-discipline. Studies show that children on natural playgrounds demonstrate increased creativity, as well as cognitive skills and powers of observation.
Louv coined the term "nature deficit disorder" for the cumulative effects of a life divorced from the outdoors. Symptoms include depression, reduced attention, and obesity.
Evidence is mounting that nature-play reduces the symptoms of ADD and ADHD.
Used to be, most rural and suburban children spent long hours out of doors, engaged in imaginative play. Now, children don’t venture as far from home, nor do they go out as often. Reasons include parental fear, increase in screens, less time for family activities, and more organized activities.
Louv argues (and I agree) that children thrive from contact with nature. I saw it happen in my son.
I remember what Silas said to me the evening after our day in the woods. As I tucked him into bed, he said a line that makes any parent’s heart thump louder. "Mom, today was a great day."
And, apparently, a therapeutic one.
Janisse Ray is the author of Ecology of a Cracker Childhood, which was chosen Book All Georgians Should Read 2001.