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Head Strong: Take our children back to nature

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Head Strong: Take our children back to nature





Posted on Sun, Jun. 10, 2007

By Michael Smerconish


My wife recently handed me an unlabeled CD and told me to save it for a long drive. Some bootleg Yes? A D.L. Hughley comedy routine? I could only hope.


It turns out it was a speech delivered by an environmentalist . . . and it was captivating. Richard Louv, a columnist and author I'd never heard of, was speaking to the prestigious City Club of Cleveland. He was talking about his book, Last Child in the Woods: Saving Our Children From Nature-Deficit Disorder.


Louv argues that children today are being raised disconnected from nature, a condition he unscientifically calls "nature-deficit disorder." Gone are the days of forts in the backyard or local woods. Today, children grow up shackled to computers and TVs, and surrounded by barriers that more often prevent them from truly engaging their natural environment.


The downside? Louv says there is a recent body of research - research that needs to be expanded - suggesting that exposure to nature can be a form of medicine for afflictions such as ADD, stress or depression.


I thought of Louv last week while reading two Inquirer stories. On June 1, the page-one, above-the-fold story came under the headline "Report shows how DHS failed." It detailed the circumstances of 52 children who died between 2001 and 2006, even though they had come to the Department of Human Services' attention before their deaths. An investigative panel reported that more than half of those children had died of abuse or under "suspicious circumstances." More than half had parents who had been overseen by DHS when they were growing up.


The front page of the local section had another headline dealing with city children: "Council votes to end city lease with Boy Scouts." A day earlier, City Council suddenly passed a resolution authorizing the city to end the Cradle of Liberty Boy Scouts' 80-year-old lease of city land at 22d and Winter Streets. At issue is a national Boy Scout policy that requires Scout leaders (not members) to be straight.


In other words, on the same day a report detailed the deaths of 52 children that DHS had monitored, City Council evicted an organization providing productive after-school activities to more than 40,000 youths in Philadelphia.


Look, I wish the Boy Scouts of America did not discriminate, as does the local Cradle of Liberty Council. But the Supreme Court said they could, and so they do.


Which gets me back to Richard Louv. Many of the activities available to the 40,000 youths are of the type that Louv counts as natural therapy.


"Justly or not," Louv wrote, "the public image of the Boy Scouts of America has shifted from that of clean-cut boys tying knots and pitching tents to one of adult leaders who ban gays and expel atheists."


Such is the domain of public discourse to which the Scouts have been resigned. Less often do we hear about them for what they truly are: an organization that preaches ethics, values and morality to young people who could otherwise fall into the grip of urban violence.


"Whether or not that's fair to view the Boy Scouts that way, certainly it's problematic for the Boy Scouts," Louv told me when I caught up with him last week. "But they do great work, and we need to support the scouting organizations, and Camp Fire [Girls], and Girl Scouts, etcetera.


"What I would hope, though, is that they would move more toward nature experience - in essence, back to their roots. Right now, many of the scouting organizations feel they have to be everything for everybody and teach business classes. Well, business classes can be found elsewhere.


"Nature is what kids need most of all. It's very much disappearing from childhood, and we can turn that around."


Louv laments that fitness-crazed adults are raising children who are weaklings, and he notes another irony: that the rise in organized sports coincides with a childhood-obesity boom. He emphasizes that nature delivers to children the lessons they just don't get in Little League - things like the wherewithal and critical-thinking skills necessary to build a tree fort. Playing in nature, he wrote, makes children more competent thinkers and better learners:


"When you think about what it's like to sit in front of a television screen or a computer screen for hours at a time . . . you're not using all your senses, you're not exercising your full perception of your surrounding. . . . In nature, you get that full sense of what's going on around you. I think that serves us well when we go out into a tough neighborhood, to know what goes on around us."


As the city's homicide rate continues to spiral out of control, and DHS fails to protect the children on its radar screen, City Council is more concerned with pleasing an appetite for political correctness than helping children.


Maybe it's time for them to take a walk in the woods.



Michael Smerconish's column appears on Thursdays in The Daily News and on Sundays in Currents. Michael can be heard from 5:30 to 9 a.m. weekdays on "The Big Talker," WPHT-AM (1210). Contact him via the Web at http://www.mastalk.com

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