From: The Guardian
In the film Immortal Beloved, the young Beethoven floats on his back in a pond, staring up at the cold points of light in the night sky, as the "Ode to Joy" from his 9th Symphony plays. The scene has stayed with me because it encapsulates that extraordinary euphoria experienced in childhood, often alone and often in response to nature.
The American journalist Richard Louv has written Last Child in the Woods, a bestseller in the US, as a cri de cœur for our children (ie the cosseted young of the developed world). He has coined the term "nature deficit disorder" to describe how they no longer spend time alone, exploring nature. Louv passionately believes that this way of life can make a child less confident, less competent physically and mentally, sedentary and therefore often obese.
Our literature is steeped in the idea of the childhood self in nature as the source of creative inspiration. The New Zealand poet James K Baxter believed that there was for the poet a physical place from childhood (in his case a cave set high above the sea) where poetry had its origin, to be returned to in the imagination. For Auden it was "the murmur of underground streams" in a "limestone landscape". For both Blake and Wordsworth, the connection between the child in nature and the creative act took on a spiritual dimension. As Louv puts it, "In nature, a child finds freedom, fantasy and privacy: a place distant from the adult world, a separate peace."
Louv believes that we have begun to over-parent. Even children's leisure time is carefully controlled. Key to the problem is the contemporary culture of fear. We keep our children close because we fear abduction, and yet a child is no more likely to be taken by a stranger today than 30 years ago. Louv estimates that the area beyond which children are not allowed to stray without adult supervision has shrunk by up to 89%. There is also the rise in anxiety about personal injury. Even here in the UK, a much less litigious society than America, "health and safety" seems to have become a bar to everything from climbing trees to running in the playground.
Louv describes a world in which we are detached from the source of food, where there are no biological absolutes, where there is an ambivalent relationship between humans and the rest of the animal kingdom, in which new suburbs constantly shrink open space. "A kid today can likely tell you about the Amazon rainforest - but not about the last time he or she explored the woods in solitude, or lay in a field listening to the wind and watching the clouds move ... For a whole generation, nature is more abstraction than reality." But while painting this bleak picture, Louv is determinedly upbeat. He points to what he calls "green urbanism" in western Europe, the creation of urban areas which foster rather than destroy wildlife. Think of London, bristling with parks, bird sanctuaries, reservoirs, wetlands.
Looking to the future, Louv advocates the development of green urbanism towards the "zoopolis" - the city conceived as part of the natural world, sustaining wildlife, with schoolchildren escaping the sanitised classroom and learning directly from nature. He believes that, ultimately, cities must shrink in size and that many of us will return to a semi-rural way of life. Will this utopia ever come about? Who knows? But on a more modest scale, Louv cites many instances of schemes to improve urban environments and the school playground, including the "eco-schools" movement in the UK.
Perhaps a sense of solitude - of being alone with the "self" - is the key to the development of the creative imagination (which engenders both scientific and artistic invention). It seems important to leave children to get on with their own thing, although Louv stresses that the "thing" shouldn't be watching TV: he says that for each hour a pre-school child spends watching television a day, they are 10% more likely to develop attention deficit disorder. Get them reading, Louv says: the child who reads independently enters a world free from parental involvement and control.
If, like me, you can't head for one of the Hebrides to raise rugged, self-sufficient, artistically creative children, what is to be done? It seems that we must give our children a sense that they control their world. Let them fiddle about at home under their own cognisance (without the telly on). Try to get them to experience nature every day on their own terms. Nature, whether on the shores of Lake Windermere or in your tiny back garden, is beautiful. Deny your child nature and you deny them beauty. Get them outside into the garden or park or even further afield and shoo them to what you regard as a safe distance, like Leontes in The Winter's Tale, admonishing them to "Go play, boy, play".