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Children — and their children — must be saved from Nature Deficit Disorder

by C.W. Nicol

When I first settled down to live here in Kurohime in northern Nagano Prefecture, I wrote an essay about what I considered to be an endangered species.

Although there are wide meadows, clear streams, woodlands and all kinds of wild places here, and despite us having hot, sunny summers and snowy winters, I never saw any children playing outside unless they were accompanied by adults. There were no boys sneaking through the woods playing at being ninja and no small footprints in the fresh snow. That was 31 years ago.

It was definitely not like that back in 1962 and ’63 and ’64, when I first started rambling the Japanese countryside. Then, kids played in the woods, and on hot summer days they’d be frolicking in the rivers and streams. They also helped out in the rice paddies, gathered sticks for firewood to heat the bath, and caught frogs and tadpoles and beetles.

They were bright-eyed, enthusiastic, happy-go-lucky kids, and although many were shy, others were quite likely to come up to a foreign stranger and ask the funniest questions. In my field notebook of the summer of 1964, I wrote: “The Japanese countryside is a heaven for kids!”

Right now, as I am sitting at my desk writing this in my study overlooking the Torii River, I can see some big boys and girls, middle-schoolers, playing in the water. The girls are squealing as they splash about; the boys are throwing stones. They are not locals.

Last summer on a day like this, there would have been lots of smaller children playing in the river, both locals and ones here on holiday.

After a huge flood a decade and a half ago, flood-control work was done on this river using natural boulders, not concrete. Back-eddies and little falls and pools were made to divert and decrease the power of the river’s flow and to increase the oxygen level in the water.

Just by my study window, a gently sloping stone and gravel approach was made then, initially to allow boulder-moving equipment access to the stream. Now it makes access to the river easy for humans.

The eco-friendly flood-control design was created for the fish and birds, but it also proved friendly to children. Apart from slipping on a wet rock, there is no real danger. Heavy rains in the hills sometimes cause the Torii to become a raging monster, but we have plenty of warning of that.

Since that engineering work was done, I have many times taken great pleasure in sitting at my desk on a hot summer’s day listening to the rush of the river and to the laughter and cries of children, while also enjoying the cool breezes that come down the river from the mountain beyond.

Local children don’t play here now. That’s because another monster has raised its ugly head: a tyrannical, self-righteous, short-sighted beast of a warped education system.

I have a young friend whose parents work with me in the C.W. Nicol Afan Woodland Trust, and also help looking after my house and garden. Ever since he was a baby this young lad has been here, and now I’m like Grandfather No. 3. He loves to play in the streams and pools and his parents have raised him to enjoy and respect nature. He’s an intelligent, observant and tough little guy — which is probably why he doesn’t like school very much.

Before the summer break began, parents were called to the local elementary school and told by the headmaster that it was now forbidden for their children to play in rivers and streams. This order probably came down from the lofty clouds above because two boys, aged 11 and 5, drowned in a pond in Miyagi Prefecture on June 18 — leaving a bucket with a frog in it on the bank. That was indeed a tragic accident, but I’m sure children are in more danger crossing the road than playing in the countryside.

As if it were an alternative to the great outdoors, the parents were also told at that meeting that the children could use the school swimming pool — but only as long as they only swam one way (then got out of the water and walked back, not doing turns), and never tried to swim underwater. My little buddy says the pool water is changed only once a year, and it tastes so foul that it makes him puke. In contrast, the water in the Torii River and the other mountain streams where he was wont to play is crystal clear and sweet to the taste.

His parents and I encourage the little chap to ignore this order. I have offered to give him pocket money if he will just write down simple observations, such as the birds or fish or dragonflies he sees out there. That way, should some sneaky twit play teacher’s pet and report him to the school, he could claim he is doing a holiday river-assessment research task for me. If the school then tried to push him around I will give them, and their bosses, a right Celtic bollocking.

Oh, I tingle from my toes to my fat red nose with the anticipation of the pleasure that would give me! I’d even go and give the Minister of Education a talking to. I’ll certainly tell Naoto Kan too, next time I see him — after all, it happened on his watch as prime minister.

However, my little friend’s mates, and their parents, are too timid to disobey the school, and when you are a 10-year-old boy it’s not much fun playing all by yourself.

A friend, another burly Welshman who is a schoolteacher in Yokohama, just sent me a book which I strongly recommend to all parents and teachers — and which I very much hope gets translated into Japanese. Titled “Last Child in the Woods: Saving our Children from Nature Deficit Disorder,” the book was written by Richard Louv and published by Algonquin Books.

In a different way but just as I noted 31 years ago, this book states that “children in nature are an endangered species.” Children are more and more plugged into electronic diversions and have lost their connection to the natural world. This is wrong, evil and stupid. Children need to play in nature with other children in order to properly develop their brains and characters, their power to make decisions and to work with other people. They need nature to teach them to listen and hear, smell, feel, look and see.

Meanwhile, scientists and other specialists are more and more calling for Nature Deficient Syndrome to be recognized as a real and serious condition. Its many symptoms show up in child obesity, attention disorders, depression, sudden violent temper outbursts, an inability to get along with others, and in many other disturbing ways. This is a serious problem for parents, teachers and for society as a whole, and when it carries on to adulthood, it’s a frightening thought that these ill-equipped people are going to raise children of their own.

NDS is being increasingly recognized in the West, and to deal with it there are movements to bring children into nature, and to bring nature back into urban areas.

For the last eight years, our Woodland Trust has held three-day programs to bring children who have been traumatized by abuse and neglect, and ones who have difficulties with their vision, into the woods to play. This summer, too, we are extending this program to help children who lost homes, schools, family or friends in the March 11 earthquake and tsunami disaster and the subsequent nuclear debacle.

These children will of course be watched over, but they will be encouraged to play in the streams and ponds, to swing on a rope in the trees and run around in woods that are the domain of bears, boars, deer, racoon dogs, badgers, foxes, civet cats, martens, weasels, squirrels, dormice, moles and shrews — not to mention frogs, toads, newts, salamanders and snakes. And needless to say, there are insects and spiders galore there, too.

It’s too bad that the children won’t see the larger animals or the snakes, because they make too much noise and scare them off. But we will be watching out for any danger — and we know where the hornet nests are. The kids just love this experience away from electronics, and many of them cry when they leave because they don’t want to go.

I know that I am correct about this. Adults who strive to keep children away from their right to play in nature deserve to be put into a prison cell with the only entertainment being Japanese TV shopping, those hooting, yapping, yakking “talent” programs and inane quiz shows.

Or it may be kinder to just shove them in an old potato sack, add a couple of rocks, tie up the top and toss the lot off a jetty somewhere. (Which is what some heartless folk did back home with unwanted kittens.) Mind you, we’d have to make rules about children swimming in such a place — so maybe it’s not a good idea after all.

What do you think?