In a recent interview, Richard Louv, co-founder of the Children and Nature Network, was asked about his description of children as having “nature-deficit disorder.” Louv described how recent research is beginning to indicate that several physical and psychological challenges, including attentional difficulty, emotional illness, and obesity, are significantly reduced through the simple act of children experiencing nature personally. Louv pointed out that humans have functioned for the vast majority of history through honing all of their senses, working physically within natural environments, and taking calculated risks to their physical well-being. Abandoning this heritage to a technology-rich world leaves children restless and underdeveloped when faced with adversity later in life.
As an educator, informal observations support Louv’s theory. The CDC reports that 11 percent of children in the US aged 4-17 are diagnosed with ADHD. A review of academic literature by Dr. Sheik Hosenbocus shows that the cause of many psychological challenges in children stems from executive functioning deficits. Executive functions are skills managed by the pre-frontal cortex of our brains that help us understand cause and effect, create categories, organize, create plans of action, create goals, and use self-restraint. Without this part of our minds firing and working efficiently, it is hard to manage a productive and healthy life.
Health and wellness in body, mind, and soul were emphasized by many halachic authorities, including Rambam and the Tur. So, what are we to do when presented with these challenges? How can we develop better-functioning minds and bodies amid strong influences to focus on our busy urban lives? What can we do to help use the tools we have created without being consumed by them?
While there may not be a simple answer to these big questions, I have implemented a plan of action to help provide one solution: Help children experience nature first hand.
At Uru Adventure, an outdoor learning program and camp in Silver Spring, Maryland, we take Sunday hikes with children, we balance on logs over rushing rivers, we sometimes fall in, and we get dirty. Children gain physical skills, focusing skills, confidence, and risk assessment skills every time we enter the forest. Group members support each other and learn more about themselves and their personal limits.
Children have an inherent interest in adventure and wonder. Giving children the chance to feel this in a natural setting while trekking through a local forest or scrambling over a rock outcropping helps them connect the thrill of their heightened senses and awe to a real experience. Tracking animals on a trail and observing changes to the same environment over time help root children in a bigger picture of reality.
Taking an adventurous and exploratory attitude on hikes and activities with children in natural settings may not guarantee a healthy lifestyle for that individual for life. However, it does make positive memories and builds resilience and character that the child uses in the short-term. The smiles, laughter, and mud on faces on Sunday mornings after an Uru Adventure activity give me hope that together we are building something greater in these children than just a fun experience — we are building lessons for life.
By Rabbi Daniel Moses
Rabbi Daniel Moses has taught in local Jewish schools over the past 13 years. He holds a master’s degree in education and is Montessori Elementary-certified.