By Randall Westfall
If I were to ask you to make a list of things that you loved to do as a child, what would be on your list? For me that list includes (but is not limited to): running barefoot, building forts, catching things, building campfires, climbing, getting dirty, telling stories, imitating animals, hiding, exploring, and a ton of other pastimes that would take up more time than I have been allotted here.
If you were to ask a child today what their favorite activities are, you’d likely get a different list of activities. Though overlap may occur, I suspect that most would involve a screen or an outlet as many have replaced formative experiences outdoors with informative experiences indoors. It’s even changing our vernacular as dictionaries are doing away with words like heron, dandelion, and blackberry in favor of iPod, broadband, and ironically Blackberry.1
In his book Last Child in the Woods, Richard Louv coined the term nature-deficit disorder (NDD) to illustrate the significant psychological, physical, and cognitive costs that alienation from nature has on children today.2 NDD isn’t an actual clinical disorder as much as it gives voice to what many of us were already thinking by addressing our intuitive understanding that nature is not only good for our children but essential to their healthy development.
Children today spend more than 90 percent of their time indoors and less than 25 minutes a week outdoors.3 A trend that is leading to epidemics in childhood obesity, depression, ADHD, Asperger’s and more.4 Why is this happening? Studies are showing that there are: a) more demands on children’s time, b) parental fears of “stranger danger,” c) more sedentary lifestyles, d) urbanization of America and e) an increased use in electronic media (up to 44 hours a week).5 These “digital natives” are experiencing the world in a radically different way than their ancestors did and it has consequences on their spiritual development.
Throughout history, our ancestors encountered God primarily through two means: nature and storytelling. Nature was experienced through the senses (body) and the heart, and stories informed the intellect (mind) and the heart. Over time, our stories evolved from oral narratives, to being captured in written form. In the past 25 years, as technology has expanded its reach and outdoor experience has degenerated, we find ourselves processing our experiences more through our mind and less through our body. In fact, we are witnessing the beginnings of what some scientists are calling a “transhuman” era6 where we are no longer multi-sensory beings; rather we become one-dimensional as our experiences are increasingly filtered through some type of technological medium.
This is all a part of NDD, and it is affecting our spiritual landscape. In ages past, a child’s spiritual life was assumed, largely in part because of the way they interacted with the natural world around them. As we become less engaged with the outdoors, we can no longer make assumptions regarding spiritual development. Children are trading in outdoor experiences for a virtual house arrest in which they live through external, digital devices. Being outdoors has shaped who we are for centuries, yet in the span of a generation; children who are “nature-smart” are becoming an endangered species.
Could it be that we are actually doing more harm than good living in a “Take only pictures; leave only footprints” culture, as our efforts to protect and preserve nature are also creating barriers to interacting with it. When it comes to nature, we have adopted a “museum” approach whereby children are taught to look but don’t touch. Other adages like stay on the trail, don’t wander, may be inadvertently projecting our fears that when interacting with nature someone will get hurt, be it either human or the landscape. If you can’t interact with something, it isn’t long before you lose interest. And if enough time passes, we dishonor God by basically declaring that “what you have made no longer interests me.” We’re encouraging children to “play it safe” in controlled environments, hyper-stimulated by electronic media. If they aren’t hyper-stimulated, they either become anxious or disengage. NDD keeps our appreciation for nature so long as we don’t interact with it. Imagine the same being said for our faith? I appreciate God, but I don’t interact with God. What do spiritual disciplines look like to that person?
The paradox of faith is that the God who dwells on the inside often must be encountered outside. When we lose the appeal to explore outer landscapes, then what metaphors will navigate the journey for our inner landscape? Faith has become inside out and it isn’t until we realize our connection with nature; then the Mystery at work in the depths of our souls and the Mystery in the natural world are parts of the same reality.7 Author John Lionberger believes that “Being outdoors has the power to join two extreme states of awareness, consciousness and acuity, which lead to peak experiences the recipient finds deeply spiritual.8 In my time in outdoor ministry, I’ve observed that children who have a connection with nature are more aware of their relationship with God than those who spend little or no time outdoors.
This is not about doing away with our iStuff, rather we must learn to find a balance between the digital and the natural. What if for every text or email sent, we spent those moments sitting and listening for what the robins and towhees were saying to us? Or instead of recognizing the thousands of corporate logos we see on commercials, we take the time and familiarize ourselves with the wood sorrel, plantain, and nettle in our own backyard? Or every video game spent trying to get to the next level; we spent an equal amount of time following a set of raccoon tracks to discover hidden levels of its life?
How will we prevent NDD from being passed on to future generations? It’s time for us to start embodying those childhood passions we listed above, as spiritual disciplines to feed the fire of faith just as we do with devotions, bible study, prayer and worship. Only then can we become fully awakened, fully alive, and experience the abundant life that Jesus wants us to step into. Our eyes, ears, noses, taste buds, bodies, hearts, and even brains were created in such a way that it is vital for us to engage creation, in doing so we always encounter the Creator.
Randall Westfall is the director at Camp Brethren Heights and founder of Ancient Paths Outdoor School in west-central Michigan.He is a graduate of Wilderness Awareness School near Seattle, with certifications in Naturalist Studies, Wildlife Tracking, Edible/Medicinal Plant Studies, Bird Language, Art of Mentoring and Wilderness Survival. He spent just as much time immersed in nature as he did sitting at his computer writing this article.
- Morris, Charles. National Catholic Reporter. 18 November 2011. [↩]
- Richard Louv. Last Child in the Woods. Chapel Hill: Algonquin, 2005. [↩]
- Play Again. Dir. Tonje Hessen Schei. 2010. [↩]
- Ibid. [↩]
- Ibid. [↩]
- Richard Louv. The Nature Principle. Chapel Hill: Algonquin, 2011. [↩]
- Robert M. Hamma. Earth’s Echo. Notre Dame: Sorin Books, 2002. [↩]
- John Lionberger. Renewal in the Wilderness. Woodstock: Skylight Paths, 2007. [↩]