Mother Nature’s Child

It’s the rare movie premiere that occurs in Hanover, New Hampshire. So I probably shouldn’t have been surprised that the Loew Theater at Dartmouth’s Hood Museum was full to capacity last Wednesday night for the first screening of “Mother Nature’s Child: Growing up in the Media Age,” a documentary by filmmakers Camilla Rockwell and Wendy Conquest. People drawn to the film’s subject — the importance of nature in children’s development — would hardly be daunted by two feet of new snow and a travel warning that lifted at 7 p.m., just as the film got rolling.

If you’ve read Last Child in the Woods, the best-selling book by Richard Louv, “Mother Nature’s Child” will feel familiar. Louv coined the term “nature deficit disorder” to describe what he sees as an epidemic loss of connection between children and the natural world. “Mother Nature’s Child” fits alongside Louv’s book as a video elaboration of its main themes.

Like the book, the movie toggles between negative and positive, between what we stand to lose if kids don’t spend enough time outside and what we gain if they do. We see two boys staring fixedly at a computer screen while they play a video game; the movie camera slowly changes focus so that outside their window we see the fresh green of a bright spring day. In the next frame, we see them slumped in chairs wearing headphones, pecking at other devices in their hands, the day gone to shadow. The movie also introduces us to a group of toddlers in the Washington, D.C., area whose teachers regularly take them to green spaces around Rock Creek. We watch the preschoolers climb logs, squelch in mud, and scramble up a rocky riverbank; and we hear them, too: One child says to another as the camera zooms in on the mud they’re playing with, “This looks like chocolate.” Her friend corrects her, “Nature isn’t made of chocolate!”

The two scenes drew strong, and different, responses from the audience — a low rumble of dismay when the boys and their electronic devices were on screen, and laughter and applause for the preschoolers — which is surely what the filmmakers want.

“Mother Nature’s Child” has a loose structure, following the role of nature in children’s lives from the toddler years through adolescence. Academic experts such as Stephen Kellert, professor emeritus of social ecology at the Yale School of Forestry; and David Sobel, director of place-based education at Antioch University New England, share the screen with on-the-ground educators like Brother Yusuf Burgess, shown teaching kids from urban Albany the fundamentals of fly-fishing; Rob Hanson, sixth-grade teacher from Pomfret, Vermont, who encourages his students to explore the river that runs past their school; and those wise, unruffled pre-school teachers, who are captured on film telling one of their charges, “You’re pretty muddy. Let’s change your pants.”

That five-second scene alone makes a point every parent and every teacher needs to hear.

Learn more

- Additional screenings of "Mother Nature’s Child," in full or in excerpted form, are scheduled in January in Baltimore, Maryland; Frederickton, New Brunswick, Canada; and Montpelier and Woodstock, Vermont. The film will also be shown at the Green Mountain Film Festival and 2011 Environmental Film Festival in Washington, D.C. More details on the film website.
- View the trailer.
- "Mother Nature’s Child" is available for purchase from the filmmakers as a DVD with study guide insert.

Great Kids, Great Outdoors” is an AMC Outdoors blog, written by Kristen Laine.

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