Richard Louv is right about everything.

Or at least that is how I feel at 10:56 pm sitting on the back steps listening to the crickets argue with a bullfrog while sipping a generic green tea with his book, Last Child in the Woods, in my lap. Raising my children to respect and value life, to savor the world with a sense of wonder and awe, to honor and care for the natural life surrounding them lies at the core of our homeschooling approach. Louv points out that kids today learn all about the importance of recycling and the cool animals in a rainforest ecosystem without maintaining an intimate and knowing relationship with their own local ecosystem. In a sense, teaching them the information without planting the seeds of love and awe misses the point. They may be avid recyclers without being avid lovers of nature. And I think the intellectual aspects of ecological thinking flow naturally from a love for nature. Teach a child to love the tree and you give him the proper frame of reference for ecological and conservationist thinking.

Louv doesn’t mind rocking a few boats on his sail. He notes that “countless communities have virtually outlawed unstructured outdoor natural play, often because of the threat of lawsuits, but also because of the growing obsession with order”. Lawns are so perfectly coiffed as to resemble the grandmother you can never really hug for fear of “mussing her hair”. Playtime is planned, structured, and meted out in specific portions between soccer and football and piano and, for the Tiger Moms, violin.

The cumulative impact of overdevelopment, multiplying park rules, well-meaning (and usually necessary) environmental regulations, community covenants, and fear of litigation sends a chilling message to our children that their free-range play is unwelcome, that organized sports on manicured playing fields is the only officially sanctioned form of outdoor recreation.

Why does this matter? In our hyperstimulating electronic culture, children don’t reap the developmental benefits of unstructured play anymore. Unstructured play, or time spent bumbling around using your imagination, serves to soothe and train young minds to be alert and responsive to their environments. With the benefits of technology, we are able to engage the globe to a wonderful extent– to live outside our mental boundaries. But technology does not assist us in learning to experience the world directly. Children live through their senses, and sensory experiences link a child’s exterior world with their “interior, hidden, affective world”. Any natural environment contains an infinite reserve of information and the possibility for infinite new discoveries, syntheses, and creations. Robin Moore, director of the National Learning Initiative, believes:

Since the natural environment is the principal source of sensory stimulation, freedom to explore and play with the outdoor environment through the senses in their own space and time is essential for healthy development of an interior life. This type of self-activated, autonomous interaction is what we call free play. Individual children test themselves by interacting with their environment, activating their potential, and reconstructing human culture.

Cornell University scientists reported in 2003 that a room with a view of nature can help protect children against stress, and that nature in or around the home appears to be a significant factor in protecting the psychological well-being of children in rural areas. Being able to soothe a stimulated mind by staring outside a window is such a simple gift. Max’s homeschooling desk faces the large window overlooking the front yard. Often, he will sit there and observe the front yard in the manner of a young naturalist surveying a habitat. He tells me what the mother rabbit is doing, how the bees are swarming near the dogwoods seeking a place to build a hive, how the squirrels seem to prefer an old pine tree for their nuts, and so on. I don’t prompt him to make these observations, but I do think I’ve encouraged them by focusing his daily “schooling” view outward, by making nature something in which he is immersed as a course of habit.

As human beings, we need direct, natural experiences; we require fully activated senses in order to feel alive. Twenty-first century Western culture accepts the view that because of omnipresent technology we are awash in data. But in this information age, vital information is missing. Nature is about smelling, hearing, tasting, seeing below the “transparent mucous-paper in which the world like a bon-bon is wrapped so carefully that we can never get at it”, as DH Lawrence put it.

A child’s knowledge of the natural world should not be limited to data points or horror stories about how the world is ending– this actually creates a distance between the child and their ecosystem. We don’t cherish what we have known from a distance. Each of us can benefit from knowing nature directly. Send your kids outside today. Tell them to name every tree in the backyard or pick a summer greenery bouquet. Give them an idea and then set them free with it. If your little one remembers his or her childhood sprinkled by the scent of grass and damp soil, you’ve given them more for the future than you can imagine.

Chase the butterflies: