Creation Spirituality: No Child Left Inside
By Rev. Dr. Holly Inglis
Psalm 8; Mark 10:13-16
She was a young girl with pigtails, growing up in the country, amid the corn and soybean fields of the Midwest. On hot summer days, she spent most of her time swinging under the big hickory nut tree or playing house under the Spiraea bushes. She went barefoot almost every day and her feet gradually hardened to the gravel and dry grass over the summer. She had a favorite tree and a favorite branch where she would sometimes perch, taking in the sun, feeling the hot breeze, and letting her mind drift. There was always some work that needed to be done though – hanging up laundry on the clothesline, weeding the garden, painting the fence, but summer was also a time for catching lightning bugs, laying on the hillside watching the clouds and eating a popsicle, riding a bike, dressing up kittens and pushing them in the doll buggy, picking flowers. It was a simple life, a simple time – IT WAS MY CHILDHOOD.
Unfortunately, these kind of experiences in and with nature seem to be diminishing over time for all of us, but particularly for our children. We spend less time in nature but we also spend far less time exploring and experiencing the wonder of the natural world, even when we live in places of profound beauty, like Colorado. There’s a name for this phenomenon of reduced exposure to nature – Nature Deficit Disorder. This phrase was coined in 2005 by Richard Louv in his book Last Child in the Woods. Louv says that while Nature Deficit Disorder isn’t meant to be a medical diagnosis, it is instead a description of the effects and the human costs of prolonged separation from the natural world. He claims that the causes for Nature Deficit Disorder are restricted access to natural areas, the predominance of electronic devices and consumption of electronic media, and parental fears.
Our fears are perpetuated everywhere. An article in the New York Times from several years ago cautioned people about walking barefoot in the park due to dangers lurking in the grass. You might get tetanus from stepping on a rusty nail; you might stub your toe on a rock. From wet grass, you could pick up the fungus that causes athlete’s foot or the virus that leads to plantar warts or the bacteria that causes stinky feet. A dermatologist stated that, “When you go barefoot, you are exposing yourself beyond what you really need to. Getting your wet feet by walking barefoot in damp grass can damage the skin’s natural barrier, allowing infections to take hold.” The article proposed a solution: wear shoes or flip flops and put down a blanket over the grass. Or, you could just not go outdoors.
All across the country, children do not or are not allowed to experience nature with all its wonders and its risks. Louv points a finger at technology: cable TV, video games, computers, internet, cell phones. This may seem like a simplistic assessment of the problem until you consider that the average American child spends 44 hours a week with electronic media according to a recent study. In one interview a fourth grader in San Diego said, “I like to play indoors ‘cause that’s where all the outlets are.”
My childhood was much different. Perhaps yours was as well. Louv also says that our children are suffering from a loss of access to natural surroundings, but he doesn’t just mean we have less natural spaces. He also means that we’ve restricted the access to the spaces we do have. Just yesterday, my daughter and I were taking a walk in her neighborhood and we passed some large rocks, perfect for climbing and right in front was a sign … NO CLIMBING ON ROCKS. I imagined walking past the rocks with my own children when they were younger and one or more of them running over to climb on the rocks. As a parent, my first response would likely have been to shout, “Get off the rocks. You can’t climb on the rocks. It’s not safe. NO!”
There are always consequences for all our decisions. Yes, children might get hurt climbing on rocks, but I wonder about the consequences to our children and to ourselves when we limit access to aspects of nature, limit the ability to explore and learn by experience, limit the risk.
Nature is risky, but then faith is risky too. The disciples wanted to limit the children’s access to
Jesus but Jesus instructed them to let the children come. God came to earth for all humanity. There are no restrictions. Was there a risk in allowing the children access to Jesus? Perhaps, but Jesus embraced that risk and a lot of other risks as well. Jesus did not live a “safe” life. Choosing to live a life of faith is risky business … for all of us. Faith wouldn’t be faith if it didn’t require a “leap.” As we mature, we learn to assess risk and weigh consequences and naturally, we want our children to develop these same skills. If we remove opportunities for our children to experience risk by exploring the limits of the natural world because of our own fears, are we unintentionally communicating that fear is the ruling force in our lives rather than love, grace, and mercy?
Our children need to grow up with a knowledge that we follow God’s Way despite our fears and that living as a disciple of Jesus is worth whatever risks may come. They need to see a deep and vital connection with creation in the adults that surround them. This is hard for me as I imagine it is for some of you. I know the healing and renewal and re-creation that is waiting for me in the warmth of the sun on my back, the smell of rain, the beauty of a moonrise, and the silent flight of a butterfly. It calls to me. It speaks to me, yet I do not always listen and heed its call.
John Calvin said “The creation is quite like a spacious and splendid house, provided and filled with the most exquisite and at the same time the most abundant furnishings. Everything in it tells us of God.” And the Italian mystic, Paul of the Cross admonished his followers to “Listen to the sermon preached to you by the flowers, the trees, the shrubs, the sky and the whole world. Notice how they preach to you a sermon full of love, of praise to God, and how they invite you to glorify the sublimity of that sovereign Artist who has given them being.”
Nature is a living sermon. In nature, in creation, we have a tangible connection with our Creator – we can see, hear, touch, and smell the evidence of that sovereign Artist. The Psalmist tells us that when we take in the living sermon of nature we understand ourselves and our place in the cosmos.
When I look at your heavens, the work of your fingers, the moon and the stars that you have established; what are human beings that you are mindful of them, mortals that you care for them?
It is out of this sense of humility and awe that we are called to teach our children to explore and listen to the world around them, to allow them to teach us about awe and wonder and beauty and curiosity and imagination. We are called to show them how to see, hear, touch, and smell the evidence of our sovereign Artist. We are called to listen the sermon of the trees and the rocks and the wind, the sound of a loving Creator beckoning his beloved children to come and play.
Wendell Berry is an American writer, poet, environmentalist and farmer. His prose challenges my fears and reminds me of my Creator’s call. Close your eyes and listen to the sounds of the night and the words of Wendell Berry
When despair for the world grows in me and I wake in the night at the least sound in fear of what my life and my children’s lives may be, I go and lie down where the wood drake rests in his beauty on the water, and the great heron feeds. I come into the peace of wild things who do not tax their lives with forethought of grief. I come into the presence of still water. And I feel above me the day-blind stars waiting with their light. For a time I rest in the grace of the world, and am free.