I was standing at a scenic overlook near Sedona, Arizona, soaking in the beauty of the immense red-rock formations against a cerulean sky. Birds sang in the trees all around, and the rush of Oak Creek sounded far below. Where there were occasional breaks in the dense foliage I could make out the figures of a couple of fly fisherman wading in the creek, whipping their lines gently over the rippling water. The stream sparkled in the sunlight.

A couple who looked to be in their 30s stood nearby, watching the scene as they leaned against the hood of their SUV. Inside the vehicle I could see a young boy slumped in the backseat. He appeared to be looking down at his lap, or asleep.

On second glance, however, I could see a light reflecting the child’s face, and I realized he was either watching the screen of a handheld electronic device. Perhaps he was playing a game or texting on a cellphone. While I chatted with his parents about the beautiful day and their journey – they were en route to the Grand Canyon for a weekend trip from Phoenix – the boy never looked up.

The scene reminded me of the phrase “nature-deficit syndrome” coined by Richard Louv in his 2005 book “The Last Child in the Woods.” According to Louv, there is a growing body of research that reveals the importance of contact with nature for healthy child development and adult well-being. Louv cites the increasing divide between the young, in particular, and the natural world in the digital age.

Many factors encourage this divide, including the tendency of modern parents to want to protect their children from the world, which we perceive as being increasingly hostile and dangerous to children.

How sad. I recall my own childhood, free of the ubiquitous gadgetry of today’s world and the eternally hovering attention of adults. I lived in the city, but was lucky enough to have wonderful places nearby with woods and streams to explore. Back then, we could stray out of sight of adult supervision without creating immediate panic. Yea, there were risks, to be sure … but those days spent wandering in nature created beautiful memories that I treasure to this day.

Children can read about nature in books, and get some amazing glimpses through The Discovery Channel and Animal Planet. But I believe we need to get down on the forest floor to understand the astounding complexity of survival – worlds within worlds where animals and plants struggle to live their busy lives under our feet. And we need to lie on the grass and gaze at passing clouds, feeling small and insignificant and yet part of something truly grand.

Such experiences are essential nourishment for the human spirit, just as a healthful and varied diet is nourishment for our bodies. We need both to become the healthy, strong and balanced human beings we are meant to be in this world.

What are your childhood memories of time spent in the natural world?

Read More: Louv, Richard The Last Child in the Woods