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Gapers Block published from April 22, 2003 to Jan. 1, 2016. The site will remain up in archive form. Please visit Third Coast Review, a new site by several GB alumni.
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Sunday, April 21

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I was reading a magazine the other day and came across something that stuck in my brain. A reader had written in with a concern she was having. She had read a book about how many kids today are suffering from something called "Nature Deficit Disorder." She was soliciting advice from other readers on how to get her kids out the door and playing. Not having read the book, or really even the whole article, I formed an opinion anyway. Apparently the issue put forth by the book is that our kids aren't getting enough open ended, non-directed natural experiences — and not just the millions of kids on earth who are living in areas where playing outside means potentially getting shot or having bombs dropped on them (which is of course an entirely different type of disorder, only not on the part of the child) but also kids who live in relatively safe environments. Apparently this is new for this generation of kids and detrimental to their development. Yet another thing we should all be worrying about, like we needed something else. I mulled over this topic with some friends while out hiking at the Morton Arboretum.

The boys we were with, all about 6 years old, were either running ahead or lagging behind the adults, exploring the woods. I had the 3-year-old on my shoulders, and my friend was carrying her 18-month-old. The trail is an easy one, from the Big Rock Visitors Center to the Big Rock, about a 15 minute hike on a groomed trail. I was there about six months ago with my kids, and the two-year-old found a long stick, forked at one end, dubbed it "the lawnmower" and proceeded to mow the trail, holding onto the forks, divining the trail with the other end, all of the way to the Big Rock. On the way back the lawnmower became horse reigns, and he held the forks behind his back, while a succession of drivers — mother, brother, sister — urged him ever onward. On this trip with his brothers' Roots and Shoots Club, he was happy to ride up top, having just woken from a heavy nap on the long drive out. His brother and friends spied the Big Rock, and everyone ran down the hill to reach it.

The Big Rock is truly a big rock. There's a sign next to it illustrating the team of six horses it took for the farmer to move it out of his field. It said that the Big Rock was merely a pebble tossed by the glaciers as they moved it here from Minnesota or beyond. This made me think of the summer days my family spends moving rocks around at a beach up near Sleeping Bear Dunes in Michigan, where Shalda Creek hits Lake Michigan. Millions of rocks congregate there, washed ashore by the lake, and driven downstream by the creek, I imagined them all being the size of Big Rock, tumbling over the land, like pebbles. The boys had all conquered Big Rock and were standing atop it, waving sticks in the air.

Is it true that kids don't know how to play outside anymore? My neighborhood is working class, lots of families, lots of kids. All of them play outside after school and on weekends, often well past dark. I wouldn't say that my neighborhood is particularly safe or unsafe, it just is what it is, an average Chicago neighborhood where a lot of people are raising kids. The adult presence is known, if not always in view. The abuelita brigade is ready to swoop in if needed. Aside from the drunks that stumble up and down occasionally, and the preponderance of speeding cars, it all seems pretty darn idyllic. I can't imagine that my neighborhood is any better or has more playful children than any other bungalow belt neighborhood, so using the kids around here as my sample, I'd have to say that there's a lot of playing going on and it's going on outside. They all might be stuck inside of a recess-less school all day, and love to play intensely complex computer games, but kids haven't forgotten how to play outside.

City kids aren't hip deep in a creek, looking for crawfish, or high up in a pine tree, overlooking woods, farm and home. They aren't normally running wild in the forest, building shelters, making fires, whittling, it's true. I guess I'd have to argue that tree-climbing, stream-hopping rural youth probably don't get much of a chance to stand in front of a 40-foot-tall face that shoots water out of its mouth, take a flamenco class or have a delicious italian ice as a treat any old time they wish, either. It's all relative, right? I know that the magic of nature experience is something worth giving to our kids, just as I know it's important that they see that people are people and come in all shapes, sizes and colors, and that there are lots of different ways to define yourself. It seems possible to give them both, at least that's the plan we're going with.

Back at the Big Rock, the boys have discovered a bunch of long logs. They begin construction on a fort, with one side of the Big Rock as the back wall. Venturing into the woods and nearby field, they gather sticks and carefully place them. A large forked log is placed on end, to hold the main beam. Supports are found to keep this key structural element standing straight. Other than the occasional loan of a strong arm — and a careful eye on the meandering little people — the mothers loiter and chat under a neighboring honeysuckle tree. The boys work hard for the better part of an hour, having been joined by the older boys, who had gone on a longer hike. The big boys are respectful of the work the little boys have done and don't interfere, but take instructions from their younger foremen. The 3-year-old has hunkered down to look under rocks for bugs.

Are we screwing up our kids by raising them in an urban environment? I've spent my fair share of late nights going around with this one but can't seem to come to a conclusion either way. First of all, I know way too many people who grew up in a city and turned out just fine. Secondly, the way I see the neighborhood kids playing is very similar to the kind of playing I did in smaller towns as a kid, only with a whole lot more stranger-danger undertones. I'm guessing that that's probably the case just about everywhere, anymore.

I wonder if what is actually missing in many kids lives is really the freedom to choose how to spend time at play outdoors. If a kid's experience with blue sky and green grass is from the middle of a ________ field (insert organized sport of choice), after which he or she is driven off to the next scheduled event, there might not be much time for running up and down a mound of wood chips waiting to be spread under the playground swings. There might not be time to take all of the bricks out of someone's garden and construct a wall across the sidewalk. Maybe those june bug shells aren't going to get stuck to your shirt like a shiny brown string of pearls. That's not the fault of the city, that's the fault of our culture and the never-ending march towards the eradication of free time. The thing of it is, city kids can play outside, get big nature fixes, and be able to escape into play, if given the time and space to do so. Especially in Chicago, lake, beach, river, forest, park, weeds, bugs: all of that is here for the noticing.

The hike continued away from the Big Rock, and back towards the parking lot. Most of the group was planning to continue onto the maze at the Children's Garden, an area of the Arboretum that opened last year. About half way back we crossed over a creek. Kids and adults all took a good look into the dried up creek bed as they passed. There were a lot of smaller rocks, firmly lodged in the earth. What would it take to get them moving across the land, and travel as far as the Big Rock had, from Lake Ontario nearly to Lake Michigan?

The 3-year-old suddenly remembered something important, turned and headed back up the direction we had just come from. I let him go a ways, taking in the sight of my sturdy boy heading off alone along a wooded trail, intent on carrying out his plan. Just when he had gotten to the edge of the invisible mother/boy tether, (and perhaps a bit farther than he would have just a week before when he was still 2) he bent over and picked up the stick he'd dropped but hadn't forgotten. He turned and ran back to the bridge, leaned over, and with all of his might, threw the stick into the creek.


The Morton Arboretum is a great place for those suffering from Nature Deficit Disorder to have a non-directed, open ended nature experience, or just run around and play. You can find out about the arboretum at They recently opened a children's garden, which is more playground on steroids than garden but still really fun. Be prepared for wet clothes. The kids and I like to hike out beyond the visitors center and check out the trees before hitting the children's garden lest we forget what an arboretum actually is. I highly recommend a game of hide and seek amongst the Juniper and Pine family.

If you are looking for a more local spot to dig on nature, nothing beats the North Park Village Nature Center. It's located at 5801 N. Pulaski. A trail winding through oak savannah, meadow, maple forest and pond is good for kids of all ages. A lovely nature center is available for drawing, reading and exploring natural artifacts. See if you can spot the Queen in the viewer-friendly beehive. Helpful volunteers abound.

Roots and Shoots, founded by Jane Goodall, is a worldwide organization for children, which promotes environmental awareness, conservation and community service. It is really easy to start your own chapter and take a whole bunch of kids out to play.

After all of that nature, celebrate your return to civilization. Have some italian ice. Johnnie's Beef (7500 W. North Ave. in Elmwood Park) is the best we've found and a $1.50 gets you a tall, lemony mound of it.

For more information about Richard Louv's book Last Child in the Woods, here is an article on Salon discussing it far more accurately than I have.

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About the Author(s)

Lori McClernon Upchurch lives on the far Northwest Side in a house that's overflowing with books, kids, pets and too much stuff from the thrift store. She is a proud member of Team Upchurch, a family of multi-talented unschoolers. She can generally be spotted driving around with a bunch of kids, not all of them hers, looking for someplace fun to get out and play.

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