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Seeing the trees through a forest of clutter

Photo credit: Will Scullin, Flickr

Around this time of year, we’re inevitably confronted by a barrage of holiday messages attempting to convince us to celebrate the season by purchasing this or that.  Yet for all the attention we pay to what retailers want us to buy and put under the tree, we pay so little attention to the value of the tree itself—and to the importance of simply getting outside with our families and enjoying the gifts only nature can provide.  

The average American child spends as few as 30 minutes a day playing outside and more than seven hours a day indoors staring at electronic screens. As a consequence, The Centers for Disease Control reports that national childhood obesity rates have more than doubled over the last two decades, while psychologists cite increasing rates of childhood depression, anxiety, and ADHD

Author Richard Louv coined the term “nature-deficit disorder” to describe the effects of this troubling phenomenon. Adding to the problem is the fact that America loses some 6,000 acres of precious open space to ongoing development every day.

Nature-deficit disorder has become such a pervasive fact of life that the big box toy chain Toys ‘R’ Us recently ran a holiday commercial depicting a school bus full of disengaged schoolchildren heading to the woods on a field trip. The kids nearly fall asleep with boredom as they listen to a park ranger describe the nature they’ll see that day. But then the ranger unzips his jacket to reveal he’s actually a Toys ‘R’ Us employee, and the field trip is being rerouted to a Toys ‘R’ Us store.  The bus erupts with joyful cheers, as the camera cuts to shots of kids rushing down aisles, arms full of toys, on a delirious shopping spree. 

Toys ‘R’ Us had the wisdom to pull this commercial amid critical reactions from both consumers and environmental groups. For that, we applaud them.  (Thank goodness for cultural arbiters like Facebook, Twitter, and The Colbert Report.)  Nonetheless, the big box toy giant inadvertently provided us with a gift-wrapped teachable moment this holiday season.  

The ad was misguided for a number of reasons.  As every parent knows—sure, kids love toys. But kids also love nature. For children, having fun in the great outdoors is like falling off a log, so to speak. Parks and other natural places are some of the few spots left where kids can let their imaginations truly run wild. 

Children play in the snow at Bruce Vento Nature Sanctuary in St. Paul, MN.Photo credit: Allen Brisson-Smith

Of course, Toys ‘R’ Us meant no harm.  They were simply tone deaf to a growing and insidious issue that’s affecting young and old alike. Making nature the foil and throwing it under the bus seemed like a good gag for a holiday ad. Which begs the question: what exactly are we teaching our kids? 

For 40 years, The Trust For Public Land has sought to address this troubling issue. We believe that everyone should be able to enjoy a personal connection to nature. That’s why we’re working with communities nationwide to create parks and protect the places that not only provide us with vital resources and endless inspiration—but sustain our very wellbeing as a species. 

This holiday, I encourage you not only to give store-bought goods but to share meaningful experiences in nature—a hike in the woods or a walk in the park—with friends and family. 

Wishing the happiest of holidays to you and yours,

Will Rogers



Sonny Cohen
Thank you, Will. This cloud certainly has a silver lining. The worldwide positive response to Toys R Us' misguided marketing initiative is instructive, encouraging and energizing. I believe many of us go forward bouyant, not dejected. Let's move on.
Mardi VanEgdom
I'm going to share this on Facebook with all of my friends and ask my boyfriend to take me for a walk in my favorite local park. It's a beautiful place with some wild area, a bit of sculptured garden, and a wonderful lake. I love it. It's been a long time since I went. I have always loved the forest and felt very special when I'm there. It doesn't matter if it is pine or deciduous, all trees are wonderful. The creatures who live in the woods are really special to me, too, from birds to deer, to raccoons and squirrels, they raise my spirits and frequently make me laugh. I respect the idea of "leave nothing but footprints and take nothing but memories." I think that's very important. But I do like to take pictures if it's allowed. Whenever I think of the woods, especially like now, in the wintertime, I always think of Robert Frost's wonderful words: Whose woods these are I think I know. His house is in the village though; He will not see me stopping here To watch his woods fill up with snow. My little horse must think it queer To stop without a farmhouse near Between the woods and frozen lake The darkest evening of the year. He gives his harness bells a shake To ask if there is some mistake. The only other sound’s the sweep Of easy wind and downy flake. The woods are lovely, dark and deep. But I have promises to keep, And miles to go before I sleep, And miles to go before I sleep. Keep up the good work! Mardi VanEgdom
Thank you for your thoughtfully written piece. Please check out our Toys R Us parody response that highlights the benefits of outdoor education -

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