Out of the Woods

Rough Draft
(Richard Thompson)
By Joel Achenbach
Sunday, May 29, 2005

Because we need more to worry about, here comes a new ailment: Nature-Deficit Disorder. It's the subject of a new book, by Richard Louv, called Last Child in the Woods, which basically says our children stay indoors too much, are alienated from nature and are going a little crazy.

Certainly every parent today has had the experience of begging a child to go outside. The child always asks, "And do what?" And we always say, "Climb a tree!" From the way we talk about it, all we did as children was climb trees, build treehouses and swing on vines. We were arboreal. But these days, when you ask a kid to climb a tree, there's a pause while the child tries to figure out a tactful way to point out that people don't do that anymore. It's like you've asked the kid to churn butter or boil up a vat of lye.

At some point you'll deliver the entire canned speech about how, as a child, you were always building forts, exploring forest trails, roasting squirrels over a fire, and so on, the classic Huck Finn sort of existence, and the only thing you'll forget to mention is that you were nearly fatally bored.

Face it, we had no choice but to play in the woods, because civilization hadn't yet invented Nintendo. Kids today don't know the crippling intensity of stupefaction that afflicted young people before the coming of personal computers and MTV. The boredom was like the ocean, and we were all at the bottom, our entire corpuscular beings compressed to 1/100th the normal size. Those "lazy summer days" were lazy for the reason that our blood had stopped circulating altogether.

During summer we had nothing to do all day other than eat Fritos and watch that zany Richard Dawson host "Family Feud." Or maybe it was Gene Rayburn over on "Match Game." Our parents' generation survived the Great Depression and World War II, but we survived "Love, American Style." Back then you got three channels, and a fourth if you could pull in that snowy station on the UHF band. The dreadfulness of the programs was commensurate with the absurd measures taken to improve their reception -- tinfoil on the rabbit-ear antennae, someone climbing on the roof to adjust the aerial, turning the broken TV knob with pliers. (Younger readers: Whaaa??)

Our toys were also dysfunctional, particularly the electric race cars, which invariably fishtailed out of control and off the track entirely. We also had Hot Wheels cars that could roll down a plastic track, over and over, demonstrating for anyone who might doubt it the amazing force of gravity. We would try to filibuster away the boredom with Risk or Stratego or Clue, but eventually even that got dull, and we'd soon be digging up ant beds, trying to get red ants and black ants to fight one another.

I would use a metal curtain rod to whack a plastic ball around the yard as though I were Arnold Palmer. Once I decided to dig a swimming pool. It took me hours of hacking through the roots of pine trees and excavating the sandy Florida soil. Finally, I had my pool. I added water from a hose and got into it, and for a moment had a sense of the good life, of living it up, of being the kind of person who owns a pool.

And then I was just a boy up to his neck in muddy water.

My own kids are going to know what nature is about. I take them on long hikes. "Is this going to be a long hike?" they ask with trepidation. "A death march," I assure them. This may be one reason they associate nature with torture. Sometimes I ask them to help me work in the yard, and they always say, "Doing what?" and I say, "Maybe a little weeding," and they react as though I said we were going to skin and gut a rabbit. Children don't weed, which is just as well, because when you do persuade them to weed, they do it slower than the weeds actually grow.

They love the outdoors when it's sunny and the temperature is between 67 and 73 degrees and there are no bugs other than butterflies. They would prefer that there be less dirt, less earth, maybe AstroTurf instead of a lawn.

Ultimately it's our fault, as parents, that we've let our kids get so soft and indoorsy. We overprotect. We hint, constantly, that the outside world is dangerous, that it's the land of speeding cars, heatstroke, lightning and creepy strangers. We've got to stop sending a message that says, in essence, "Go play outside, and watch out for serial killers."

Children need to get in touch with their inner animals. They need to go wild. As soon as I'm done typing this column, I'm ordering my critters outside to climb a tree. But, you know, not too high up.

Read Joel Achenbach weekdays at washingtonpost.com/achenblog.

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