Not that long ago, summer camp was a place where you camped, hiked in the woods, learned about plants and animals, or told firelight stories about ghosts or mountain lions. As likely as not today, "summer camp" is a weight-loss camp or a computer camp. For a new generation, nature is more abstraction than reality.But old-fashioned summer camps, says Louv, can "touch the heart." And touching the heart is what Louv believes is so important about the outdoors. His own term – "nature deficit disorder" – suggests the disconnect is a pathology, but he really argues that our need to connect with nature is primal, even biological. He talks about Harvard professor Edward O. Wilson's controversial "biophilia" thesis, that we are genetically hardwired to have an affinity with nature. It argues that getting outdoors, looking at pleasing landscapes, are things deeply necessary for humans. Louv, who spoke at Seattle's Town Hall a couple of weeks ago, has written about his ideas in various articles. If you don't have time to read the book, check this story and this interview with Salon. He also runs an organization devoted to linking kids with the outdoors. You might have trouble getting a copy of Last Child in the Woods from the Seattle Public Library: There were 50 holds on it when I checked the other day. Clearly, Louv's concerns are resonating. Those people include government officials. As the use of public lands has slumped, the government is trying to boost their appeal to families. Both the U.S. Forest Service and the Bureau of Land Management have launched programs to get more kids outside. The scientific community has also expressed concern about the importance of play (108K PDF) and the outdoors. As the use of anti-depressants by children increases, as obesity rises, as more kids are diagnosed with Attention Deficit Disorder, the importance of getting kids off the couch is gaining momentum in public health circles. Playing outdoors is believed to help with all of these maladies. Of course, it doesn't take much to wake up the public nannies who want to modify our diets and behaviors for the public good. This isn't about finger-wagging, however. It is about considering more coherent public policies. Today, many conflict with one another. One reason recess and summer are disappearing is because of the pressures for academic performance due to government programs like "No Child Left Behind." One reason natural habitat is vanishing is that our tax system encourages development and our economy relies on growth from new home sales and sprawl. Law enforcement and the media terrify people into thinking the world is more dangerous than it is – the park is a place for kidnappers, not chickadees. And too much litigation and liability make everyone so risk-averse that kids are precluded in many communities from building forts and tree houses, lest they violate housing covenants, zoning laws, or cause the occasional broken limb. In short, "nature deficit disorder" is partly the unintended consequence of rules and regulations that have the effect of keeping people indoors and afraid. As well intended as government programs and medical warnings are, Louv rightly, I think, emphasizes the spiritual and psychological benefits of remaining close to nature and giving kids a measure of independence. This is something that can only be rectified at the family level. It's up to us to resist the societal pressures that put the outdoors and independence on the back-burner. I talked to Tom Nielsen, executive director of the regional Evergeen chapter of the American Camp Association, a national group that accredits summer camps. He also runs a camping program for the American Cancer Society. He says that the number of old-school, family-owned camps like HVC is dwindling, but he also points out that attendance at camps is generally up, not down. He notes that adventure camps and family camps (a newish trend) are doing well. But he acknowledges that people today are "more couch-potatoish," and he sees the disconnect Louv writes about. He reaffirms that one of the benefits of the camp experience is that it "addresses ... the factor of people being able to take risks in their lives." That could be surviving a rope course or performing a campfire skit, or learning to spend a few weeks in a new place with new people who are not your parents. In talking with Todd McKinlay, he notes that camps like HVC are facing more competition for kids' time. Many kids come back summer after summer, but McKinlay sees a concerning trend. "One thing we have noticed is that the younger end is less – 7-, 8-, 9-year olds – there are fewer in that range." Without those younger campers, the generational cord will eventually fray. Louv says that it's ironic that kids today are taught more about the environment and being green than any generation before, between recycling and the Discovery Channel. Kids know more than ever about the Amazon rain forest but have almost no knowledge to catch a fish or identify a tree in their yard. Love of nature is becoming intellectualized. We are, in effect, raising more Ralph Waldo Emersons than John Muirs – we are raising people who appreciate nature in theory but have never spent a night under the stars. Who will be the wilderness stewards of tomorrow? Camp can be an answer to that. Writing on camp's "gifts," Louv says:
Nature-oriented camps also help care for the health of the earth; many studies show that nature play in childhood is the chief determining factor in the environmental consciousness of adults.I am not anti-computer gaming; I have seen the benefits of it in my own family. It can open wonderful imaginative worlds, improve hand-eye coordination, even lead to high-tech employment. But also having some exposure to the "vigorous life," as Teddy Roosevelt called it – sleeping outdoors, getting the pants scared off by a campfire story, hiking to a pristine alpine lake, learning to live with a group of strangers in a tent, sharing in chores, being away from parental supervision, taking care of a horse, playing impromptu games of capture the flag – these have lasting benefits. Even if you never hike or camp again, these experiences can satisfy like a good story. A story you yourself are living. Not all outdoor activities and organizations are positive for everyone. I loved my times at HVC but hated my paramilitary years in the Boy Scouts. But great programs can be transformative – OK, even lousy ones can. But as Louv points out, even if you can't afford or don't have time for old-fashioned summer camp like HVC, the benefits of being a well-nurtured biophiliac can be had through de-programming. Finding a park or green space and letting kids loose is a simple act that could be our salvation.
Like what you just read? Support high quality local journalism. Become a member of Crosscut today!