[Originally published in The Star Democrat on May 11, 2010. You can also view the complete archive of Bill Peak's library columns.]
My wife and I liked the neighborhood because it reminded us of those we'd grown up in. Here, each morning, the school bus made its halting way from one intersection to the next, and on weekends the streets filled with children bicycling to and fro. Looking at the wooded lot we'd just purchased, and remembering how I'd played Tarzan and Daniel Boone in such places as a child, I told Melissa we could expect to find children's game trails running all over our property. The prospect didn't bother us. We both love kids.
Well, it's been fourteen years now since we bought that house, and over that time I've discovered two species of salamander in our woods, three species of turtle, five of frog, six of snake, ten of mammal, 137 of bird, and not a single living, breathing child. The children in our subdivision avoid our woods—any woods—as you or I might avoid a particularly dangerous part of downtown Mogadishu.
For me, at least at first, the realization that this was so came slowly, part of the general background noise that now and then whispers in our ear, reminding us that time is passing, the world changing, that the things we hold dear will not necessarily be held dear by those that replace us. Then, last year, Mandy Smith of the Pickering Creek Audubon Center recommended I read Richard Louv's “Last Child in the Woods” (non-fiction, 155.418 LOUV), and my eyes were opened.
It is Louv's contention—and he offers plenty of evidence to back it up—that children require regular, daily free-play in natural settings if they are to fully develop their intellectual and creative potential. Yet despite this essential requirement, children today, while mouthing pro forma sympathy for “the environment,” have almost no real contact with that environment. Again and again, while interviewing thousands of children across America, Louv heard statements like that made by a fourth-grader in San Diego, “I like to play indoors better 'cause that's where all the electrical outlets are.”
It is, perhaps, not entirely coincidental that, just as our children turned their backs on the great out-of-doors, a new disease was identified among their ranks. Attention-Deficit/Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD) is now the most common neurobehavioral disorder of childhood. A recent study done by the University of Illinois found that, while “current ADHD treatments fall far short of ideal, offering only limited relief from symptoms and often involving serious side effects ...” (think Ritalin) “... activities conducted in relatively natural outdoor environments may be widely effective in reducing ADHD symptoms.”
So what has all this got to do with the library? Plenty. Remember that first paragraph and my references to Tarzan and Daniel Boone? It wasn't nature programs or organized sports that got me out-of-doors as a child, it was stories. In the woods around my grandparents' house in Kentucky, I summoned trumpeting elephants with my Johnny Weissmuller call, threaded my way through the Cumberland Gap with Daniel Boone, built frontier forts with Kit Carson, fought off grizzly bears with Lewis and Clark.
If we want our children to grow and flourish, we must give them heroes to emulate (and pretend to be) whose stories take place not in some artificial, cyber world but in the real and wondrous world of nature ... tales of Shackleton's boat journey and Peary's dash to the pole, of Chief Joseph's magnificent failure and Harriet Tubman's brilliant success, of Pere Marquette and Johnny Appleseed, Jane Goodall and Karen Blixen. I know of only one place where, absolutely free of charge, shelves full of such stories wait to change your children's lives: the Talbot County Free Library.