Critters, Tree Houses and Stars

The church wades in to nature-deficit disorder

by Daniel Deffenbaugh

Richard Louv’s landmark book, Last Child in the Woods, rarely stays on my shelves because I am always giving it away.[1] This may be one of the most important popular texts written on child development in the last 20 years. Louv’s thesis is that boys and girls today are living in a de-natured environment. Surprisingly, educators and parents—responding to a number of social, political and cultural forces—are doing their level best to keep children away from a primary experience of the natural world. The result, Louv argues, is an emerging “nature-deficit disorder,” a condition that is not unrelated to the attention deficit disorder so commonly diagnosed among school children in the United States. The urgency of the book for the American populace, and especially for parents, is perhaps best exemplified by a young boy’s response to a question concerning his favorite activities: “I like to play indoors,” the boy said, “’cause that’s where all the electrical outlets are.”

It is tempting, of course, to point our fingers at the usual culprits of television and video games when trying to determine the source of this problem, but Louv points out that such an oversimplification only prevents us from recognizing the more subtle issues involved. Forty years ago it was not uncommon for children to spend their free time scavenging for critters in creeks and wood lots, building tree houses, or camping out under the stars in a neighbor’s field. Experiences of nature tended to be direct, associated with smells, tastes, sounds and feelings. Though Walt Disney informed many of the less fortunate suburbanites about the peculiar habits of footloose foxes and other whimsical creatures, there was nevertheless a tendency among children to spend much of their time outdoors—ice skating in winter, investigating pussy willows in the spring, collecting fireflies and colored leaves in the summer and fall. Now, according to Louv, all of that has changed, and nature has come to be perceived as a kind of “bogeyman,” another victim of our pervasive culture of fear.

Louv’s perspective was brought home to me in no uncertain terms a few summers ago as I was visiting relatives in Ohio. Much like Louv, I spent most of my time as a youth building the forts and tree houses he recalls with such fondness in his book. Also, I was a frequent visitor to the Rocky Fork Creek that wended its way through our small town. The creek was a kind of social gathering place for the kids of my neighborhood; there was not one sycamore stump or fishing hole that I had not explored and known intimately before I was ten years old. That summer, with thoughts of recapturing some of our old experiences, two of my cousins and I decided to don our old tennis shoes, find a trusty five-gallon bucket and wade the creek in search of tadpoles and crawdads—just like old times. Never did I dream that such a spontaneous activity would generate so much anxiety among the parents of the children who wanted to join us.

All kinds of questions were raised. Was the water clean? We had better call the Department of Environmental Quality to find out. Just to be sure, we should probably not allow the young ones to get wet, and let’s be certain that everyone has a good shower afterwards. What kind of riff-raff might we expect to encounter along those foreboding waters, so far from the safety of civilization?

We were just going wading in a creek! In no time, our little afternoon excursion had turned into Charles Marlow venturing into the heart of darkness. Somehow, over the course of a single generation, the landscape that once nurtured my own physical and spiritual growth had become highly suspect, something to be feared and avoided rather than sought out and enjoyed.

When Last Child in the Woods was published in 2006 there was relatively little scientific research being done on the therapeutic value of nature. The argument of the book’s first edition—that today’s children suffer the ill effects of a disassociation from the natural world and therefore need to be reintroduced to its restorative qualities—seemed to be largely anecdotal. Since that time, however, numerous studies corroborate Louv’s thesis, and the author has made note of these in a later edition of the text and in two subsequent books.[2] Now compelling evidence suggests that a child’s regular exposure to nature facilitates better social and physical development, reduces stress, inspires collaborative play, and creates feelings of empathy for the non-human world, among other positive outcomes.[3] Louv’s work has also spawned a plethora of community nonprofits all over the country whose sole objective is to provide safe and open-ended learning activities for children wanting to play in the natural world. One of these organizations, Nature Explore, is now a leader in consulting with educators on how to redesign children’s play areas to enable closer interactions with nature. This group publishes an annual resource guide, and their website features an extensive research section documenting the positive developmental outcomes associated with getting kids out of the classroom and into the woods.[4]

There is little doubt that Louv’s work has had a significant impact on a general populace concerned with providing what is best for children. The important question for the church, however, is how we can incorporate positive aspects of this movement into the lives of our parishioners and interpret these in the light of faith. It is no secret that many in the environmental movement regard the theology of the church as an obstacle to their objectives. Most Christians, they claim, care little about the natural world, preferring instead to set their sights on heaven above and the life to come.[5] Since this accusation was first leveled in the 1960s, however, a generation of ecologically minded theologians has made it sufficiently clear that a concern for creation should inform our identity as servants in God’s kingdom. Certainly the past 30 or so years have laid the groundwork and offered the theological justification for why Christian stewardship of the earth is our calling. Our task now is to address the how of the matter. The work of Richard Louv offers a viable starting point, but we will need to do more than simply provide opportunities for children, and adults, to interact with the non-human world. We will need to construct a sound practical theology for why living as a part of nature is a meaningful dimension of our faith.

This is not the place to offer a thoroughgoing theology of nature, but it is important to note that a retelling of the story of salvation history to include the voice of creation will be important if we want to educate Christians about their calling as “tillers and keepers” of the earth (Genesis 2:15). The four movements of the narrative—creation, fall, redemption, and future hope—have long been told from a human-centered perspective. How might we relate this biblical tale from the standpoint of Earth, encouraging both children and adults to see with creation’s eyes what was lost in the fall of humanity, what was endured in Israel’s unfaithfulness to the covenant, what was gained in the salvific death and resurrection of Christ, and what Earth can hope for in Jesus’ return. This is a kind of theological play, an exercise in empathic identification with the Other that can produce very positive results. But it is serious play. Indeed, it is the hermeneutic that lies behind the Green Bible and the Earth Bible projects, both of which have offered an ecological reading of the Christian Scriptures.[6]

If Richard Louv’s work has taught us anything, it is that we are a people consumed by abstractions and mediated experiences. Telling new stories will not be enough; we will need to live out these stories in the context of creation itself. To this end I propose that congregations add a new position to the Christian education staff: the parish naturalist. In the last decade, men and women in 40 US states have pursued certification as master naturalists, usually through programs sponsored by state universities and agencies. Training typically involves up to 60 hours of course work on ecology, interpretation and wilderness conservation. As someone who has been involved in these trainings for the past five years, I know that many people of faith come to these classes with deep spiritual questions. They are not just citizen scientists but lay theologians as well. It would seem an opportune time, then, to encourage these master naturalists to engage their passions in their congregations, informed by both their scientific interests and recent scholarship on ecological theology. The parish naturalist would provide outdoor education opportunities for children and adults, which could then be interpreted through the eyes of faith. Networks of parish naturalists could promote interest in the intersection of nature education and Christian theology. In sum, a new dimension to Christian education will get Christians of all ages out of the classroom and into nature itself to engage issues of faith and ecology in a hands-on way.

Churches have long known what Louv has emphasized in his work, that there are certain restorative properties in God’s creation. It is no coincidence that denominations tend to situate their summer camps in areas of great natural beauty. Youth are especially sensitive to the spiritual energy that seems to pulse through such places. Where we have missed the mark, however, is in our failure to reflect on how these contexts are relevant to the Christian story. Nature has too often been seen as merely the stage upon which the drama of human salvation is enacted. This must change, especially given the dire warnings coming to us from so many sectors of the environmental community. Though the old Appalachian hymn cautions that “this world is not my home,” an informed ecological theology begs to differ. In nature we experience the wisdom of God and come to know what it means to be human. The church should be the last place to find a nature-deficit disorder.

At no other time in our history has the call for a parish naturalist been more relevant. Richard Louv has identified the problem. Numerous nonprofit organizations have developed successful programs for nature education with children. Now it is up to us. The church must address the challenge of nature-deficit disorder with as much spiritual strength and creativity as it can muster. Should we fail in this, it is likely that the next problem we will face is a deficit of nature itself.

 

[1] Richard Louv, Last Child in the Woods: Saving Our Children from Nature-Deficit Disorder (Chapel Hill, NC: Algonquin Books, 2006).

[2] Richard Louv, Last Child in the Woods: Saving Our Children from Nature-Deficit Disorder, Updated and Expanded Edition (Chapel Hill, NC: Algonquin Books, 2008). See also Louv’s more recent texts The Nature Principle: Reconnecting with Life in a Virtual Age, Reprint Edition (Chapel Hill, NC: Algonquin Books, 2012), and Vitamin N: An Essential Guide to a Nature-Rich Life (Chapel Hill, NC: Algonquin Books, 2016).

[3] See, for example, S. F. Dennis, A. Wells, and C. Bishop, “A Post-Occupancy Study of Nature-Based Outdoor Classrooms in Early Childhood Settings” Children, Youth and Environments 24, no. 2 (2014): 35-52.

[4] Nature Explore is a collaborative initiative of the Arbor Day Foundation and Dimensions Educational Research Foundation. For more information, visit www.natureexplore.org.

[5] This argument was first introduced in 1967 in a seminal essay by historian Lynn White, Jr., “The Historical Roots of Our Ecological Crisis,” Science, 155, no. 3767, March 10, 1967: 1203-1207.

[6] See The Green Bible (New York: HarperOne, 2008), and Norman C. Habel, ed., Readings from the Perspective of Earth (Sheffield: Sheffield Academic Press, 2000). Known as Earth Bible.

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