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Originally published Monday, May 9, 2005 at 12:00 AM

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Neal Peirce / Syndicated columnist

Reconnecting young America with the natural world

Can we reconnect? Can we give our children a way back — past overdone fears and exaggerated safety rules, around today's electronic...

Can we reconnect?

Can we give our children a way back — past overdone fears and exaggerated safety rules, around today's electronic lures — to the world of simple, free contact with the natural world that lightened the childhood of all our past generations?

And what of our great city regions? Can we look past the skyscrapers and subdivisions, the ribbons of freeway and container ports and gritty industries, to rediscover the enduring pattern of ancient hills and rivers and harbors, the still functional natural regions?

Two fine new books suggest reconnection is possible.

For our youth, the formula is spelled out in Richard Louv's "Last Child in the Woods: Saving Our Children from Nature-Deficit Disorder." Historically, Louv notes, kids learned the natural world on farms, in families' gardens, and exploring woods and creeks and ravines, swamps and ponds where they could observe, capture minnows and bugs, collect bird eggs or snake skins — or even build elaborate tree houses.

There's strong evidence, he reports, that such independent play and exploration builds broad mental, physical and spiritual health.

But today's children, he asserts, are systematically cut off from natural play. "Well-meaning public-school systems, media and parents are effectively scaring children straight out of the woods and fields." The stated reasons seem endless, from Lime's Disease to multiplying park rules to perceived perils of kid-snatching.

With today's superhighways, thick traffic, shopping malls and rigid control by community associations, fewer children get a chance to walk or bike to school. A study of three generations of 9-year-olds found that by 1990, the radius around the home that children were allowed to play had sunk to a ninth of what it had been in 1970.

Increasingly, Louv laments, "nature is something to watch, to consume, to wear — to ignore." He cites a television ad that depicts an SUV racing along a breathtakingly beautiful mountain stream — while two children in the back seat watch a movie on a flip-down video screen, oblivious to the landscape and water beyond the windows.

The irony is that much of parents' hyperawareness of dangers, and all the new restrictive rules, may make children less able to cope with their world. Natural play awakens children's self-confidence and critical skill to judge and cope with perils on their own.

And what better place to start than in the great natural regions where we live? Tony Hiss and Christopher Meier are authors of the recently released "H2O — Highlands to Ocean." Published by the Geraldine Dodge Foundation, "H2O" is both scientific and poetic in its celebration of the landscapes and waterscapes of the New York-New Jersey metro area, America's most globally famed and prominent citistate.

Indeed, while this is North America's most densely settled corner, now 15 million people strong, a page or two of "H2O" dispels anyone's image of Greater New York as a skyscraper and asphalt jungle. After 400 years of European settlement and 150 of intense industrialization, the authors assure us, all the New York region's "great natural building blocks are still intact, still functioning, still integrated with one another."

The story starts with the Highlands, an area of fast-growing suburbs but also wilderness refuges for bald eagles, black bears and coyotes; the great and historic Hudson River, its waters protected by ferocious environmental advocacy; New York Harbor, the world's largest port, huge and calm, with 650 miles of shoreland; the Passaic River, cradle of the American Revolution, with great 77-foot high falls; the Meadowlands, where one can find 225 species of birds.

If children (not to mention adults) need a great natural region to explore, what better place could there be than this "age-old, regionwide, ongoing community of ecosystems and organisms, habitats and processes that" — as Hiss and Meier write — "for almost 400 years have had us for neighbors"?

Not all of America's metro areas offer quite as venerable a history as New York. But exploring dozens of citistate regions across the country, I've yet to find one that lacks a special ecology and its own distinctive environmental features.

The challenge everywhere is to find ways to recultivate wandering, tame roaring arterial roads so they're more accessible to pedestrians and bikers, and to improve public transportation so that kids don't have to wait until they're drivers to access the full region around them.

Hiss is an exponent of place and its almost magical role in our lives. Louv would give youth radically more freedom to roam (maybe with a cellphone to check home).

Both messages are right on.

Neal Peirce's column appears alternate Mondays on editorial pages of The Times. His e-mail address is nrp@citistates.com

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