"Daddy, remember, camping is in tents."
— Clara Gullixson, age 9
Each summer at this time I'm reminded in not-so-subtle ways that the most restful day of a family camping trip is the day you plan it. The second most restful is the day you get home — sore, dirty and knee-bent, thankful for life's simple pleasures such as accessible coffee and pillow-top mattresses.
It's even nice to be back at work, where to get something accomplished you don't have to worry about squirrels getting into the garbage bag or children getting into the marshmallows. And your tasks, no matter how maddening, don't compare with trying to cook pancakes on a slightly sloped Coleman stove or chasing adolescents through the forest holding a container of sunscreen.
But there's something else I'm reminded about — how much my children love it. And it's not because of my cooking.
Earlier this month, my family and I had the good fortune of spending three days tenting it in Yosemite followed by two more at Sunset State Beach on Monterey Bay. Without getting too much in the weeds about all of this, there <CF102>is <CF101>something primal about the way a child takes to the outdoors — to playgrounds where the infrastructure consists only of rocks, sand and fallen logs.
Yes, the kids enjoyed the organized activities such as drifting down the Merced River in a rented raft and strolling through the Monterey Bay Aquarium. But the highlight for my son, no doubt, was his moments of freedom scrambling over the chunks of granite at the base of Yosemite Falls. For my daughter, it was adopting a yellow and black caterpillar and going to great lengths to make a home for it in a leaf-loaded plastic cup. (Purists, fear not, "Fuzzy" escaped to the wilds before departure.) They need this stuff. They crave it.
Long ago, I wrote a column about "Last Child in the Woods: Saving Our Children from Nature-Deficit Disorder," by journalist Richard Louv. In the seven years since, I don't think I've recommended any book more than this one, particularly to parents.
(Louv was the featured guest on "City Arts and Lectures," on KQED, FM last Sunday, in case you caught it or have a chance to hear a rebroadcast.)
His premise is one I sincerely embrace — that children aren't spending enough unstructured free time interacting with nature on their own terms, overturning rocks, climbing trees and building forts and sand castles. He calls it "nature-deficit disorder."
He suspects, with good reason, that this shortage may have something to do with the rise in attention deficit hyperactivity disorder, or ADHD, which now is said to impact 5 to 12 percent of children between the ages of 4 and 18, especially boys.
So what's preventing children from having these experiences? Round up the usual suspects: Video games, organized sports, shorter vacations, the high cost of travel and, of course, the big one: fear. When many of us were children, our moms just told us three things on summer days: Get out, stay out of trouble and be home by dinner.
Now, parents, including me, don't want children out of our sight. Louv notes a study that says the radius around the home that a child is free to roam is one-ninth of what it was in 1970. Parents today would prefer to keep our kids safe in organized activities. Staying out trouble means staying in sight — and staying out of nature.