Keeping Childhood Wild: David Sobel on Mother Nature’s Child

Photo by Molly Steinwald.

“For special places to work their magic on kids,” wrote lepidopterist Robert Michael Pyle, “they need to be able to do some clamber and damage. They need to be free to climb trees, muck about, catch things, and get wet—above all, to leave the trail.”

Lately, though, much of environmental education—the sort of education that’s meant to work a kind of magic on kids—has lost track of Pyle’s insight. As David Sobel puts it in “Look, Don’t Touch,” his feature in the July/August 2012 issue of Orion, environmental education has

become didactic and staid, restrictive and rule bound. A creeping focus on cognition has replaced the goal of exhilaration that once motivated educators to take children outside. Much of environmental education today has taken on a museum mentality, where nature is a composed exhibit on the other side of the glass. Children can look at it and study it, but they can’t do anything with it. The message is: Nature is fragile. Look, but don’t touch.

It’s an approach that may actually cut kids off from nature, Sobel argues—one that could create fearful and, well, boring associations with the outdoors.

There are, of course, other ways of doing things. David wrote to us recently about a new film, Mother Nature’s Child, which articulates both the loss of intimate nature play for children in the last four decades and examples of teachers and programs courageously setting a new path. Here’s David on the film and its intersection with his essay in the July/August issue:


Mother Nature’s Child, produced by Camilla Rockwell, is a provocative look at children’s relationship with nature in the twenty-first century. The film captures the complete disconnect from nature that many children experience—and then it shows what’s possible. From pre-schoolers at play in Rock Creek Park in Washington to urban youth fishing in Albany to high schoolers on a five-month ski-and-canoe rite of passage in Vermont, her film illustrates nature education at its finest. Unabashedly, it shows teachers and parents assessing and accepting healthy risk and allowing children to find their natural selves.

After a recent showing in St. Louis, Camilla received this message from Tamie Yeggie, manager of the Powder Valley Nature Conservation Center in Kirkwood, Missouri.

I’ve been managing a nature center for almost 15 years. There are many things we’ve changed since viewing Mother Nature’s Child and they are making a difference. After a public screening of the film at the nature center, I was approached by a man who said he had stopped bringing his grandson to visit the center after having a negative experience with rule enforcement. He said he’s noticed a huge difference recently and was so happy to be able to start having fun and engaging visits again.

Over the years, “enforcing the rules” had become just that, and there were people leaving with a negative experience. We changed our approach and began using positive reinforcement and redirection of behaviors. Watching the film inspired us to change the way we approach nature interpretation and public interaction.

We are now using the film to educate staff and volunteers; it shows examples of interacting with children differently… Now a child who picks up a stick isn’t told to put it down because he might get hurt. If a child brings in a snake or turtle she’s picked up, she is greeted with enthusiasm, gently educated about the animal itself and why it is important to return it to its original habitat… Running, climbing, stepping off the trail, and playing in the creek are no longer discouraged.

Our interpretive staff is using ideas from Mother Nature’s Child to change the ways they do programs. Unstructured play and risk-taking are key values we are incorporating into our programs. We are excited to have this resource for ideas and motivation for change. I’ve been asked whether I’m concerned about the consequences of changing operations this way. In fact, I’m much more concerned about the consequences if we don’t. Thank you Camilla for such an eye opening and inspiring film!

And thanks to Tami, for being honest and reflective about Powder Valley’s nature education programs, and for being willing to change. A great example of reflective practice.


Watch the trailer for Mother Nature’s Child, below, and read a review of the film, here.


  1. I’m so glad to see this here! Wonderful!

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