Playing in the woods and fields for hours on end. Enjoying burgers on the grill with ripe Jersey tomatoes and sweet corn. Enduring those hot, sweaty days and warm, sticky nights in a house without air conditioning. The arrival of summer always brings back memories of my childhood.
I grew up in Princeton, near what is now the Billy Johnson Mountain Lakes Nature Preserve. In my youth, the park was a vast private estate—a highly inviting place to trespass on and explore. One of my most memorable “watershed moments” as a boy was following Mountain Brook on its westward journey. On that summer day, my friends and I discovered that the stream led us from the estate all the way to Johnson Park Elementary School—our school – after joining the Stony Brook!
My children have had their own wild places to explore. Growing up in Hopewell Borough, they sought out Bedens Brook in the town’s park and the preserved open space owned by Mercer County that surrounds the park. And, of course, every summer my children explored the vast Watershed Reserve—which now measures nearly 1,000 acres—during Watershed Nature Camp.
Unfortunately, spending time outdoors in nature is much less common than it once was—and that may be at least part of the reason for the extraordinary increase in attention deficit disorder, depression, anxiety, and other physical and mental health disorders witnessed in America’s children in recent decades.
Nearly fifteen years ago, author Richard Louv introduced the term “nature deficit disorder” to describe this phenomenon in his book “Last Child in the Woods.” Louv posited that unscripted, outdoor play is essential to the healthy development of the human mind, of creativity, and of our five senses. Children today are bombarded instead by unnatural sights and sounds delivered through hand-held devices, which may be leading to an unbalanced development of the senses and the mind.
Since Louv’s book was first published, a movement has emerged of pediatricians and other physicians who prescribe time in nature for their patients. In 2016, Dr. Nooshin Razani, a pediatrician at the University of California at San Francisco’s Benioff Children’s Hospital, founded the country’s first hospital-based nature research program (The UCSF Center for Nature and Health). Her program and the “Nature Rx” movement is the subject of a long feature story in Outside Magazine (“Science’s Newest Miracle Drug is Free”).
The concept of “Nature Rx” registered immediately with my children’s pediatrician when I mentioned it to him. He told me that time spent outdoors was one of two things that he wished his patients had more of (the other being sleep).
This year, my children graduated from college and high school, respectively. Like all parents, my wife and I are extremely proud of our kids and hope that we’ve imparted wisdom that will serve them well in adulthood. Looking back, the most important thing we may have helped them find was their own loving relationships with nature. And that may just be the most important thing that our staff at The Watershed Institute does too.
-Jim Waltman, Executive Director