Last Child on the Urban Farm

>> Wednesday, December 10, 2008

This post is my submission for this month's APLS Blog Carnival. The subject is "children are our most precious resource." Check out all of the APLS bloggers on December 15 at Going Green Mama.

Yesterday was a fluke warm day (nearly hit 70 although the high was predicted at 57), so I took the boys outside to let First Son practice riding the bike he got for his birthday. We rode along the sidewalk in our apartment complex, and then the boys asked if they could park their bikes and play for awhile. There's an island of trees in a cul-de-sac-like part of our complex where the boys and I played in the leaves a couple of weeks ago. There weren't any leaves yesterday, so the boys played in the dirt, stacked rocks, and pounded sticks together.

I am pretty sure we are technically not supposed to play there, but I'm also pretty sure that the management of our apartment complex frowns on children playing anywhere on the complex grounds.

None of the apartment complexes we looked at within walking distance from Raleigh had playgrounds. This one was better than most with its pool, tennis court, volleyball court, and grassy areas, but people never pick up their dog's poop in the grassy areas, and a month ago, the complex put up a sign on the tennis court basically stating that the court was for tennis only. (I had been letting the kids play in there since it was a flat, fenced-in area good for bouncing balls and not getting run over by cars.)

There is a nice wooded playground within walking distance from our apartment, but we would have to risk our lives on a dangerous road to walk there. There is another small playground that's part of an apartment complex down the street (again I think technically we are not allowed to play there). The street to get there is not safe for small children riding bikes, but we walk there now and then.

My kids are five, three, and one, and because of the urban lifestyle my husband and I have so far chosen to lead, my kids are growing up with very limited outdoor experience.

I compare this with my own childhood and feel a deep sense of remorse. I can remember being as young as five and playing freely in the field in front of our house with my older sister. Later, my friends and I ran wild in the woods, building treehouses, climbing trees, occasionally falling into the pond, bringing home toads and frogs and snakes, getting covered in poison ivy.

I can't imagine letting my kids have the kind of freedom in nature that I enjoyed. Not only because the world seems less safe now, but also because there's just no place like that around here where they can play.

In Last Child in the Woods, Richard Louv points out that children today are taught about the rainforests and global warming, but very few of them are having real, hands-on experience with the outdoors. They have an intellectual connection to their environment, but not an emotional connection. And when they grow up, they will have memories of books and pictures and classrooms, but not memories of tangible experience: swaying in the branches of a tree, squishing in the mud, being peed on by a frightened toad!

The modern disconnect from nature that our children are experiencing makes me wonder what the future holds for environmentalism. Without experiencing nature, will the next generation have any desire to preserve it? As Louv says, "No child can truly know or value the outdoors if the natural world remains under glass, seen only through lenses, screens or computer monitors."

While reading Last Child in the Woods, I contrasted the neighborhood I live in with some European neighborhoods that Louv mentions while describing Timothy Beatley's book Green Urbanism: Learning from European Cities:

"He describes an astonishing array of European green-city designs: cities with half the land areas devoted to forest, green space, and agriculture; cities that have not only preserved nearby nature, but reclaimed some inner-city areas for woods, meadows, and streams. These neighborhoods are both denser and more livable than our own. Nature, even a suggestion of wildness, is within walking distance of most residences."
Louv goes on to describe several cities' greenways, city-encircling bike paths, and urban farms. My first thought when I read this was, "I need to move to Europe." That's not a very practical solution, though, and a better one would be to work to make that kind of green urban development happen here in the United States.

Here are some ideas on how to do that:
  • You can get involved in your area by contacting your city's planning commission and letting them know of your desire for more green spaces, pedestrian and bike friendly streets, and natural play areas for children.
  • You can attend town meetings and voice your opinions about green building and park planning.
  • You can also join the 40 million Americans involved in the No Child Left Inside coalition, whose goal is to create outdoor learning opportunities in classrooms and schools across the nation.
  • Or you could start a farm to cafeteria program at your children's school or help them plant a school garden, both of which help children understand the source of their food and provide them with a healthier alternative to typical cafeteria lunches.

I think it's simple and logical to say that children need to spend more time outdoors, but it's harder in our increasingly urban society to provide children with outdoor experiences. It's important, though, for us as environmentalists to find ways to increase children's connection to nature if we want our torches passed on to the following generations.

As one woman in Last Child in the Woods explains, "Connecting [our daughter] with nature offers...a place to learn about love and respect for all of life - to see, touch, and smell where it all comes from, and to understand why she'll be called to do her part to take care of things."

Photo by lepiaf.geo


Maren Hansen December 11, 2008 at 9:24 AM  

Great post, Erin. I heard the author speak on NPR about a month ago and resonated with what he had to say. I haven't read the book yet, but I will say that I think this is something that is more of problem in some places than others. Not only are some places more aware of having green spaces, but they have lots of undeveloped land around them still. To me, there is an interesting contrast between the highly populated city centers on the coast, and the open spaces of (particularly) the Midwest and intermountain west...

Erin aka Conscious Shopper December 11, 2008 at 2:01 PM  

Maren, I am a big believer in Louv's ideas about getting children outside, but I've got to tell you that I thought the book was kind of boring. It took me two months to read it when normally I can whip through a book in a week (or a few days if I sacrifice sleep). The subject is great, but it's definitely not a page turner.

I think parts of Silver Spring and the metro DC area do a great job of preserving green space. We loved playing on the greenways when we lived there. On the other hand, there weren't many sidewalks where our house was, and the traffic was scary. It makes me feel silly to drive to a park or greenway, especially if they are within walking distance from my house. Cities should just be designed more pedestrian friendly so we can enjoy nature in our own neighborhoods.

I look at my current apartment complex - at the pristine green manicured lawns that are taking up so much space but aren't really good for playing on, and it drives me crazy.

Going Green Mama December 11, 2008 at 4:37 PM  

Erin, I understand your frustrations. I remember one year returning from college to find the area we built treehouses had become a McDonalds. Such is "progress!"

I agree that we are going to have to work very hard with our children to make sure they have an understanding of our world that's not based out of pictures or on the internet.

Thanks for participating in this month's carnival!

stenkil's mom December 11, 2008 at 10:00 PM  

You could just throw your boys in the sink hole when they come to visit their Grammy and Gramps. That'll give them some nature.

Abbie December 15, 2008 at 4:46 PM  

One of my students read Last Child in the Woods for a book review last year. She was inspired to do a little study. She climbed a tree in her neighborhood with a notebook and pencil on a warm spring day and sat, waiting, to count the number of children outside. She sat for an hour and saw no children. She was disappointed, as were the other kids listening to her presentation in my class.
After discussion, my class felt that kids today have less free time, therefore less time to explore nature. Every minute is scheduled into some activity instead of kids using their imagination to come up with ways to entertain themselves. We didn't really come up with a solution, but I felt that awareness was better than nothing.

Erin aka Conscious Shopper December 15, 2008 at 10:32 PM  

Stenkil's Mom - When they're a little older, I absolutely plan to throw them in the sinkhole to play!

Abbie - I'm really impressed by your students. You sound like a great teacher!

Green Bean December 16, 2008 at 12:29 PM  

Great post! Getting our kids back outside is one of the single most important things that we can do for them. But you accurately describe the challenges - it is just so difficult in an urban setting.

Abbie's post only drives home the need. Thanks for the inspiration. I read Last Child a year and a half ago and need to be reminded every so often of the importance for getting my boys outside.

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