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Save kids from nature deficit disorder by teaching them to sail

2007 April 17
Not long ago, I was visiting my old hometown and, by chance, I found myself near the bay where I had learned to sail so many years ago. On a whim, I drove down to see what remained of the waters where I had spent long lazy summers learning the nuances of wind and sail, with more than a little time splashing around my capsized dinghy, at least in the early stages.

Where there once had been clapboard beach bungalows scattered among sandy lots covered with iceplant, now stood multimillion-dollar waterfront mansions. The sandbars that we'd used for picnics at low tide were long gone, dredged into submission to create marinas filled with gleaming yachts.

But, amazingly enough, the clubhouse and pier that had been the home for my long-ago junior program still stood alone on an empty patch of sand. As I pulled to a stop, I looked around to see if Rod Serling was stepping out of the shadows to introduce me as the subject for tonight's episode of "The Twilight Zone".

It was eerie because the building hadn't changed a bit-the same Cape Cod blue with white trim and the gray pier that had even more layers of peeling paint. I sat next to the old race committee shack and my mind drifted back to warm summer days, laughter, wet swim trunks, sandy feet and zinc oxide on my nose.

Fingering the initials carved in the railing over five decades, I thought about what a wonderful childhood it had been. What more could a youngster want than to be master and commander of his own 8-foot pram? As the school year wound down, out would come the rudder and the mast for a fresh coat of spar varnish, and I could usually find time between studying for finals to touch up the rails as well.

It was a time of trying my wings, of being responsible for myself, of dealing with the vagaries of wind, water and other kids. It was, in essence, the very definition of independence. In the morning, my mother would pack a sandwich and potato chips into a waterproof container and send me off. About dinner time, I would return to the nest, sunburnt and salty, weary but elated.

The evening meal would be, "Then he tacked right in front of me," or, "Then we all jumped in the water." Days would pile upon days until we realized that it was September and school was starting soon. We would have a final day of sailing, capped by a going-away party in the clubhouse. It was always bittersweet, because many of the kids were going back to their "real" homes and leaving their summer rentals, and us local kids, behind. There were lots of "See you next summer" and, as that pretty girl gave you one last smile, some wistful wishing that you'd let her know that you liked her as more than just a good crew.

That walk down memory lane popped to mind when I came across a book that suggests that today's kids have become detached from the outdoors, much to their detriment. Richard Louv wrote Last Child in the Woods: Saving Our Children from Nature Deficit Disorder because he, and other researchers, are discovering that new generations of kids are growing up so coddled and protected that they are disconnected from the natural world. Louv, a child advocacy expert, points out that instead of spending the summer hiking and swimming and sailing and telling stories around campfires, kids are more likely to attend computer camps or weight-loss camps.

As one fourth-grader told Louv, "I like to play indoors better 'cause that's where all the electrical outlets are." But it's not just video games and computers and television that are keeping kids inside; it's the fears of their parents for everything from traffic to strangers to viruses.

My summers were a time to spread my wings and learn about independence. Today, kids are enrolled in summerlong soccer leagues or simply allowed to remain indoors where they are safe but unchallenged.

Researchers are now seeing that children as young as five show significant reductions in Attention Deficit Disorder when they are engaged with nature. Test scores and grades are higher for kids who are connected to the outdoors, and it seems to be a powerful therapy against depression and obesity. Children who spend time on their own also develop skills in problem solving, critical thinking and decision making.

I've always felt that we live in a world with way too many "disorder syndromes" that explain away everything, but I think that Louv has a point with Nature Deficit Disorder.

I can clearly remember my father shoving me off for that first solo day in my dinghy. He didn't show any worry or concern (which would have unnerved me, of course), although I remember my mother being a little fidgety. No, he gave the transom a shove, grinned at me, said "Sail smart and be safe." And then he gave me a wink.

It was his vote of confidence in me that set me free. If he trusted me to make the right decisions, then I'd better make them.

My neighbors are so afraid for their children that they drive them one block to the school bus, and they have the car television on during the trip. They are raising children who are unable to fend for themselves. I never had to walk to school in the snow, as the old cliché goes, but I rode my bike to the sailing club every summer day, balancing sailbag and gear on the handlebars. Not only did my parents expect me to cope with getting there, but I would have died if they'd insisted on driving me. Only wimps arrived via parent.

Even sailing parents can be obsessive. As a kid, I loved sleeping in the cockpit when we were at anchor on a weekend cruise but, today, I have friends who have long lists of reasons for insisting their kids sleep inside the boat: catch a cold, get wet, fall overboard, get kidnapped, get Lyme disease x the list is endless. And it keeps their kids from looking at a black night sky pierced with stars. It protects them from hearing the splash of a fish jumping or the sound of wavelets rushing onto a stony shore.

And, though Louv doesn't mention it, junior sailing programs can become overly protective as well. Too much structure, and the kids may as well stay home and play video games. Cut the kids some slack to enjoy free time in their dinghies, to splash around on the shore, or just to hang out with other kids.

Most important of all? Give their transom a shove, tell them to "Sail smart and be safe."

And don't forget the wink.