Discuss: Look, Don’t Touch
Tell it brother.
At the bottom of it all is the mistaken belief by parents that the risk is too great, and the potential benefit is too small. You will not get anywhere trying to convince them otherwise. But, as you verify, the kids know when someone is pissing on their shoes and trying to convince them it is raining.
My children (7&8) are daily and happily exploring the little wooded creek valley behind our suburban lot. My wife and I chose the house we did with exactly that activity in mind. When they were old enough to wonder what might happen if they went up or downstream, I told them: Go! When it became common knowledge on our street that we permitted them to do that, the reaction of the other parents was, well… let’s just say they did not approve. I had more than one tell me, knowingly, that “There are copperheads back there.” My standard reply? “I hope so.” Let’s just say that I now have a reputation.
When the children came back one day, breathless, to tell me that they had actually had seen a copperhead…and knew what it was, and avoided a bad outcome, because I’d told them what to look for…I grinned from ear to ear. The mother up the street looked at me as if my depravity could not described.
It’s hard to say who I feel sorrier for: The parents of those other children, the children themselves or all of us.
“There are copperheads back there.”
Made my day, Wade! :-) Here there are bears and pumas, and I have been warned a number of times not to hike alone. My standard response is, “you know what? It would be a privilege to be taken by a bear or a mountain lion.” They just shake their head, amused and unsettled at the same time. But they do leave me alone after that…
In the years I have been here in CO, I’ve only seen a bear twice, far from it being a danger, and never a puma. Sniff. The stuff suburbanators worry about is astounding.
This piece nearly made me cry. I teach environmental studies to 16-19 year olds and their lack of feel for being in the “wild” is terrible. These are students who understand about and even want to “save the planet”, but are clearly uncomfortable outside. We are in the NW of England, so rain does inhibit play, but I have students who were genuinely horrified when I plucked a blackberry and ate it while on a walk. Many, academically bright students, cannot identify some of the most recognisable and iconic British plants, things in toddlers’ picture books.
These sort of experiences are clearly upsetting for me, but I realise how remiss I have been. I took my sons with their friends for a walk to a nearby wooded stream- “Ok, off you go, have some fun, I’ll wait here.” “But what do we do ?” Again I nearly cried. When I was their age, I certainly would not have needed any advice on how to play in the woods.
On Saturday night we were at a local village celebration and one of my friends came back to the table “Those boys ! I’ve had to get really cross with them, I’ve had to tell them again not to go into the woods.” These “woods” are part of a school field and no more than 15 metres wide, surrounded by a fence. I replied that I would have been upset if my boys hadn’t gone in. Like Plowboy and Vera, I do have a bit of a reputation.
So how to explain to parents who think that allowing “freeplay” is to be apologised for and that being “outside” means more washing (although football kit is ok), that wild exploration is essential ? Our Scout leaders are well meaning, but they have little feel for “nature”. My curriculum is so full that my ability to teach out in the field is so limited, and ends up being resented and counter productive(too often too cold and wet). I haven’t given up though. Good luck to everyone who understands- keep working !
James…For those other parents it has to start early I think, within some limits of course. You’ve got to first work on that inner voice that guilts you about it. You’ve got be appreciate that you are not in control, and never were. It also helps to remember how foolish you felt grown-ups to be when you were their age. Remember? I had adults all the time telling me to essentially not commit suicide. I remember thinking: “Just how stupid do they think I am?” Yes, self-preservation is not to be underestimated. After that, you’ve just got to be at peace with the possible outcomes…which include broken bones, cuts, poison ivy (and yes) poisonous snakebites. (It also is essential to know your environment, and that is where most parents fail. For instance, don’t send your kid into the woods eating a ham sandwich in late fall in grizzly country) You’ve got to appreciate that the worst case will most likely be a trip to the ER, and no permanent damage. The worst-worst case is something none of us can prevent anyway, of course, and then you are back to that control thing. Have a stiff drink if it gets too unbearable.
As for your children, and those you can influence, try what I do. I tell them: “Today is an outside day…unless you need medical attention, food, or the bathroom, I expect you to stay out of doors.” Then, it helps if at least one adult is outside with them most of the time. Not only does that increase their comfort level, I find children love to have an adult to “perform” for, share discoveries with and resolve conflicts. You’ll get the initial pushback about it being too hot/cold/sunny/rainy, etc., but my standard response is “tough.” Then you’ll likely get the “there is nothing to do out here” tactic, to which my standard response always is, “find something.” “We’re bored” usually gets them my, “Good, we like it when you are bored” speech. Before too long, they take ownership and the rest is easy.
Another tactic I like to do is the set-up. Find an object…anything that invites imagination and put it out with no instructions as to what to do with it. My two played for endless hours with an old cable spool I found on the curb. Give them a pair of loppers or hand pruners and tell them to cut a trail somewhere. Kids love paths, especially if it leads to a secluded spot or fort. A rope hung to the lowest branch of a tree is usually all the invitation they need to climb. A minnow or butterfly net, a flashlight at night, a knife it they are old enough….the list is endless. A birdhouse to watch daily for new occupants is always a hit. A simple box trap to bait and check daily, and observe whatever they catch is one of our favorites. Traps are very easy to build and that is another project in and of itself. Growing things is also a must-do if you want your kids to connect on any natural level. If it is something you can eat… all the better…you win twice.
At the end of the day though, kids are not going to buy into anything that the adult doesn’t, and they are like bloodhounds sniffing out those who don’t walk the walk. You’ve got to show them that it is important to them by demonstrating that it is important to you. You’ll know that you’ve succeeded when it is getting dark one night, supper is on the table and they are nowhere to be found. My fondest memories are of those dusky times after playing out all day, heading back on familiar trails to a lighted house and a hot meal. Doubt I’ll ever sleep that good again.
It’s a strange time to be a child these days… We were always always begging to go out. Never had enough. And my mom had to get very upset with me many times before I reluctantly kept to “be home when the lamps turn on.”
When I came to the States, I wanted my classmates to tell me the English name for a dandelion. They looked at me blankly. Argh.
And the times when I cooked wild mushrooms, and my American friends would not eat them. It’s like a damn disease…
As a child I never caught frogs. I never picked flowers. Probably my first “nature” experience was walks in our neighborhood with my mom. We picked up fallen leaves, brought them home, and did leaf rubbings. As I grew older I spent most of my free time outside – usually on the back of a horse. In LA County most of the trails paralleled dry creek beds and arroyos… the smell of mulefat defines my youth. I was also a girl scout and we did a lot of hiking on trails in the Angeles National Forest to waterfalls where we hopped on rocks and took tentative steps into freezing cold water on pebbles that hurt our feet ever so slightly, but felt oh so good.
An adult friend of my mother was one of those “Nature Types”—you know the ones who LOOK like Jane Goodall? Her name was Sharon. Picture an older Deborah from ITO or Rainbow. Same facial features. My parents weren’t really into Nature so Sharon took it upon herself to make sure I grew up with a love of animals. She gifted me with subscriptions to Ranger Rick and as I grew older she gave me memberships to a number of wildlife organizations, etc. I grew up reading about wolves and writing letters to encourage the government to re-introduce them to Yellowstone (which they did, for a time). I had “save the whales” posters in my bedroom.
There are many in the environmental education field that tout the importance of going off trail, picking flowers and capturing animals as a basis for developing an environmental ethic. I did just fine without doing those things; in fact I became the Director of Education of a Nature Center. I knew, even as a small child, that flowers make seeds. If you pick them before their time, those seeds don’t have a chance to make new flowers next year. I knew that animals could be negatively affected by contact with humans, and I was perfectly happy trying to photograph them.
Hands-on environmental education, done correctly – done creatively – can accomplish the goal of instilling a love of nature in children WITHOUT destroying nature in the process.
I enjoyed the article but felt it missed a few key points.
If kids have to go to an environmental center or park for some outdoor “wild” experience then they will not be getting enough such experience. Unfortunately adults have created such a sterile environment around their children that too many kids cannot actually explore or experience nature in their backyards. The backyards are manicured, mowed lawns and a few cultivated flower gardens. We have created environments that prohibit the kind of exploration children need.
Programs as discussed in the article are still monitored and accompanied by adults. Is it really daring to let a kid risk falling down or get dirty with a couple adults always there? The childhood experiences of environmental heroes mentioned in the article, Muir, E.O. Wilson, etc., did not occur under the careful gaze of adults. I think the point needs to be made more strongly that kids need to get out and be on their own more than allowed by popular standards of parenting.
Allowing a kid to “run wild” for a few hours after being driven to an environmental center and watched by adults is not likely to build a real affinity for the outdoors. From my experience growing up, we ran wild *most* of the time; the occasional trip to an environmental center or the week at summer camp was the time we were to simmer down and try to learn something. Run it however you like, a kid’s program is still a *program*. Kids need time in some semi-wild areas where they can truly explore and follow their curiosity.
Certainly there are poor programs for kids and others that are superior. But the onus for giving kids a grounding in the outdoors depends on the parents and kids interacting with nature on their own schedule, not environmental educators. Environmental education programs should be minor supplements, not their primary outdoors experience.
July 7 2012 :: I heard about this “Look Don’t Touch” miseducation of some portion of today’s children via the best enviro radio show - LIVING ON EARTH - just now!
On embracing ‘the environment’ at the level of personal / moral context I had (at age 6 or 8-years old) an EPIPHANY or whatever it should really be called: learning the hymn “This Is My Father’s World” in the downstairs Sunday School room while the adults were upstairs in the sanctuary at the main church service (northern Virginia 1950s suburbs, Northern United Presbyterian) liberal as far as mainstream religions were concerned at that time… I looked out the windows from that half-basement room so I was at eye-level with the lawn. The words to that hymn were so EVIDENT in what I saw! And I never have considered myself much of a “Christian” nor a worshipper of any sort…
But at the verse “In the rustling grass I hear Him pass…” I watched the breezes touching the taller leaves of grass, in this case gently but at even the intensity of a raging thunderstorm, the grass bent and moved just the “right way” to stay alive and to accept what it could from the natural resources at that moment. I knew then in an instant: THIS WAS “god”. God in all things, in the actual rustle - not just in “things = objects” and certainly not in “things = living”. It was as I later learned “pantheist” and even later as Buddhist and ecologic. INTERdependent!
And yes, our parents let us play in the tiny <1Acre wood across from our divided 30mph roadway street unsupervised, once we were old enough. They used a distinctive whistle and/or a 4inch brass bell to call us to dinner. One year my dad rented some row space in a nearby small farm - grew root vegs, corn, eggpl, tomatoes, etc. etc. and we sold what mom did not preserve & put up or dad gave away at the office. As a young kid (age 10?) I hated the gardening-farming - hot, hard, boring work, and got bitten by one of the farm’s dogs (just as the hospital was about to administer the painful rabies shots, it was confirmed that the dog was healthy).
I became a green LEED AP architect of hospitals, schools, etc. and part-time teacher of “sustainable design” to master of science students. My brother, just 2 years younger than me, became a fiscal-moral-social-Catholic conservative lawyer and CC/GW skeptic… man!! Go figure!! <GRIN> And my two-year older sis became one of the most avid liberal & HUMANISTIC **activists** you might imagine and holistic, incorporating filtered natural materials into major medical treatments of her family and growing enough tree and vine fruit plus tomatoes, summer squash, root vegs, herbs to put up some through canning each harvest.
P.S. make sure to read this extract from a Thomas Berry piece delivered at Harvard Univ.:
“We have an ethics and a jurisprudence that begin with the human and determines our conduct in our relations with each other and our individual relations with the human community. These are our primary concerns. ...The natural world surrounding us is simply the context in which human affairs take place. Our relations with this more encompassing community are completely different from our relations to the human world.
In the presence of the human, the natural world has no rights. We have a moral sense of suicide, homicide, and genocide, but no moral sense of biocide or geocide, the killing of the life systems themselves and even the killing of the Earth.”