by Ann M. Colford & r & & r & & lt;span class= & quot;dropcap & quot; & H & lt;/span & ave you noticed how seldom you see kids playing freely outside these days? Drive through the city's residential neighborhoods on any given afternoon and you'll be hard pressed to find more than a couple of children exploring the nooks and crannies of nearby yards or vacant lots. Oh, kids get outside -- behind chain link fences for school recess, in organized sports like soccer, or perhaps in their fenced-in backyards -- but unfettered play and exploration in the natural world is largely a thing of the past.

Author Richard Louv noticed a similar trend in his San Diego neighborhood a few years ago after a poignant comment by his youngest son. In the introduction to his book, Last Child in the Woods, published last year by Algonquin Books, he writes that his son asked, "Dad, how come it was more fun when you were a kid?"

Reflecting on the comment, Louv writes, "Like many parents, I do tend to romanticize my own childhood -- and, I fear, too readily discount my children's experiences of play and adventure. But my son was serious; he felt he had missed out on something important. ... Americans around my age, baby boomers or older, enjoyed a kind of free, natural play that seems, in the era of kid pagers, instant messaging, and Nintendo, like a quaint artifact."

From this observation, Louv went on to dig into both scientific research and anecdotal reports from parents about kids' relationship to the natural world. He coined a term for what he saw as children's growing disconnect with nature: "nature-deficit disorder." It's a catchy name for a discouraging trend that educators have watched over recent years.

Sue Fischer, a teacher in the West Valley School District who works with children in the Destination Imagination program in creative problem solving, read Louv's book and says she sees examples of nature-deficit disorder every day.

"I teach science, and it used to be we were mainly teaching kids the words for things they already knew from experience," she says. "Now we have to do a lot of hands-on inquiry science just to put the concepts in their brains. I don't know that [nature-deficit disorder] is what's causing it, but Louv's hypothesis makes a lot of sense to me."

Louv will be in Spokane Valley next Thursday to deliver the keynote speech at the annual conference of the Environmental Education Association of Washington (EEAW), a group of teachers and others who teach children and adults about the natural world. His talk is open to the public.

It's not a coincidence that Louv's terminology echoes attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD). In a recent article for Orion magazine, he noted that the number of children diagnosed with ADHD rose 33 percent from 1997 to 2002 and that spending on ADHD drugs for children younger than 5 rose an amazing 369 percent. Louv posits a link between the rise in ADHD cases and the lack of exposure to the natural world.

"In a 2004 study published in the American Journal of Public Health, the laboratory found that children as young as 5 showed a significant reduction in ADHD symptoms when they engaged with nature," he writes in Orion. "In 54 of 56 cases, outdoor activities in more natural settings led to a greater reduction in ADHD symptoms than activities in less natural areas."

While studies have shown a reduction in ADHD symptoms after engagement with nature, no study to date has shown that lack of access to nature causes or exacerbates ADHD. Still, Louv and environmental educators like Fischer believe it's a link worth following.

In his book, Louv offers suggestions to parents, schools and communities about how to reconnect kids with the natural world. He talks about the fear that drives parents toward hyper-vigilance and surveillance of their children, the restrictive covenants in many housing developments that discourage free-form play in yards and common areas, and the decreasing amount of open green space in many cities and suburbs. But most of all, he decries the busy, overly structured and organized lives led by many of our children.

"It takes time -- loose, unstructured dreamtime -- to experience nature in a meaningful way," he writes. "Such time becomes a scarce resource ... because our culture places so little value on natural play." Only by changing our cultural values, he says, can other structural changes -- in parks, schools, homes and communities -- happen.

Richard Louv will speak on Thursday, March 23, at 7:30 pm at the Mirabeau Park Hotel, 1100 N. Sullivan Rd., Spokane Valley. Tickets: $35. Call 838-0206 or 340-1028.

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