Look, Don’t Touch

THE KIDS HAVE BEEN UP since seven-thirty playing computer games and watching cartoons. What a travesty for them to be inside on such a beautiful day, you harrumph to yourself. On the refrigerator, you notice the schedule of events from the nearby nature center. “Let’s Get Face to Face with Flowers,” it beckons. Just the thing! It’s a sparkly May morning. Buds are bursting. There’s a warm breeze full of the aromatic scent of the woods just waking up.

You trundle the kids into the minivan. They despondently consent. “Do we have to do a program? Programs are boring,” the older one complains. But as soon as you pull into the parking lot at Happy Hills Nature Center, their faces brighten. They fling the sliding door open and scamper down through the blossom-filled meadow to the shore of the pond. Ross, age seven, pulls off his sneakers and wades in, bent over searching for frogs. Amanda, age ten, plops down and starts making a dandelion tiara. What a good decision, you think to yourself.

Terri, the smiley naturalist wearing the official Happy Hills insigniaed staff shirt, saunters over. “Here for the flower program?” she chirps. “We’re meeting up in the Cozy Corner room to get started.”

Ross asks, “Can Freddie come too?” holding up the fat green frog he has befriended.

Terri’s bright face darkens a bit. “Sorry. Freddie needs to stay in the pond. Did you know the oils from your hands can make Freddie sick?”

In the darkened Cozy Corner room, Terri has prepared a PowerPoint of all the flowers you might see on the trail today. “Here are some spring beauties. They look just like little peppermint candies. But, of course, we can’t eat them. And here’s one of my favorites, Dutchman’s breeches. Why do you think we call them that?”

After about the seventh slide the kids start to squirm in their seats. “Daddy, I have to go pee,” complains Ross. After about the twenty-seventh slide, you too have to go pee.

“And now, let’s see how many we can find,” Terri says. It’s good to be back outside. Upon entering the woods, Amanda notices a red eft in a patch of moss. She takes a few steps off the trail and Terri chastises her: “Remember, Amanda, nature is fragile! When you walk off the trail, you crush all kinds of little creatures you can’t see.” Farther on Ross scampers up into the inviting branches of a tree that has fallen across the trail. “Sorry, Ross, no climbing, too dangerous, we wouldn’t want you to get hurt.” At each flower, Terri circles everyone around and tells them the Latin name, the herbal uses, the pollinator, the . . . Once in a while someone gets to touch the petals, only veeerrry gently. Picking flowers is strictly verboten.

Toward the end of the walk, the trail comes out by the pond, where Amanda finds her discarded dandelion tiara and slips it into her shirt, watching to make sure Terri doesn’t notice. On the ride home, no one talks.

“Well, that was fun,” you enthuse, trying to get the conversation going.

Amanda extracts her dandelion tiara and perches it on her head. “Picking flowers was fun. But we told you about programs, Daddy. Too many rules. It would’ve been fun if we could have just played all together in the meadow.” You find that you agree.

Contrast this experience with John Muir’s recollection of arriving at his family’s first American homestead in remote Fountain Lake, Wisconsin, when he was eleven. Within minutes, he and his brother were up in a tree observing a blue jay’s nest. From there they raced about to find a bluebird’s nest, then a woodpecker’s, and thus “began an acquaintance with the frogs and snakes and turtles in the creeks and springs.” The new world of untamed America was thrilling for John and his brother:

The sudden plash into pure wildness — baptism in Nature’s warm heart — how utterly happy it made us! Nature streaming into us, wooingly teaching her wonderful glowing lessons, so unlike the dismal grammar ashes and cinders so long thrashed into us. . . . Young hearts, young leaves, flowers, animals, the winds and the streams and the sparkling lake, all wildly, gladly rejoicing together!

This is the joy of children encountering the natural world on their own terms, and more and more it is becoming a lost idyll, no longer an integral part of growing up. There are many reasons for this loss — urbanization, the changing social structure of families, ticks and mosquito-borne illnesses, the fear of stranger danger. And perhaps even environmental education is one of the causes of children’s alienation from nature.

I know that’s a puzzling statement. You’re thinking: environmental education is supposed to connect children with nature, to get them started on a lifetime of loving and wanting to protect the natural world. Yes — that’s what is supposed to happen. But somewhere along the way, much of environmental education lost its magic, its “wildly, gladly rejoicing together.” Instead, it’s 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. Ironically, this “take only photographs, leave only footprints” mindset crops up in the policies and programs of many organizations trying to preserve the natural world and cultivate children’s relationships to it.

IF YOU WALK THE DRIFTWOOD-CLUTTERED shores along Maine’s crenulated coast, you’ll find a number of ramshackle constructions in the coves. KID’S FORT! NO ADULTS ALLOWED! a hand-lettered sign will warn. The forts are woven into the spruce blowdown at the edge of the shore, or crouched between the top of the beach cobble and the steep, blackberried bank. Planks, lobster pots, buoys, scrap metal, broken ladders, discarded tarps are pieced together to create bedrooms, lookouts, kitchens, storage cabinets. It is clear that deep, unadulterated play is alive in these salty edges beyond the purview of parents. And yet, on many land trust properties on the coast of Maine, fort building is outlawed because of concerns over liability and unsightliness.

I believe that the imaginative, constructive practice of fort building actually fosters the sense of connectedness that land trusts want to cultivate in young people. It’s an instinctive drive to make a home in the world away from the home your parents provided you. When you make a fort, or den, or hideout, it creates a connection to the land, nurturing an affinity for that place. Discouraging these natural tendencies of childhood could actually lead to resentment of, and a lack of commitment to, the land trust’s agenda of land preservation. When I wrote an op-ed piece for the Bangor Daily News articulating this conviction, one Maine land trust board member responded,

Realistically, if the land trust allowed some fort-building along the shore, then how much is too much? Following typical monkey-see monkey-do behavior, if one fort is built, then other people come along and decide to build a second fort, and so it goes. Then we’ve got a neighborhood of forts that has become a distraction and an eyesore to those who want to teach kids to appreciate nature using a light-handed approach. The scale of fairy house construction on another coastal island is testimony to the scourge this can become.

See what I mean?

Head south to Texas and you’ll encounter more of the same. At the Lady Bird Johnson Wildflower Center in Austin, the trails ramble through hill country chapparal — hardy shrubs, some cactus, copses of woods. It’s an unfragile, wonderfully explorable landscape. When I asked if children were allowed to go off the trails, to play in the little pockets of woods, the education director looked at me disapprovingly. “Oh no, we can’t let children do that.” The intimation was that this was way too dangerous for the children and would have too much impact on the natural resource. I wasn’t convinced that either of these concerns was well founded or based on data.

It’s true in the inner city as well. When a friend of mine was the education director at the Arnold Arboretum in Boston, she was trying to create programs that encouraged the multiethnic children who lived in the neighborhood to develop a love for trees. When I asked, “Well, do you let children climb any of the trees?” I got the same disapproving look from her. Tree climbing? Just not possible. Sure, I agree that the rare trees in the arboretum should be off-limits, but the big spreading native maples and beeches, the hemlocks down along the stream — why not? Children have been climbing trees for millennia; it’s great exercise, and in the vast majority of cases, they don’t get hurt. Keep in mind that children get hurt from falls in the bathtub, and we don’t prohibit showers. Similarly, children get injured playing competitive sports. We tolerate the risk of injury from field hockey and soccer because we value the physical and social benefits. Why don’t we have the same risk/benefit mindset in relation to climbing trees?

Between the ages of six and twelve, children have an innate desire to explore the woods, build forts, make potions from wild berries, dig to China, and each of these activities is an organic, natural way for them to develop environmental values and behaviors. Instead, the “look but don’t touch” approach cuts kids off from nature, teaching them that nature is boring and fraught with danger. Inadvertently, these messages send children back inside to the dynamic interactivity of computer games. Could it be that our fear of litigation and our puritanical concerns for protecting each and every blade of grass are hampering the development of the very stewardship values and behaviors that we environmental educators all say we’re trying to foster? I believe so.

As a child in his native Scotland, John Muir vigorously embraced the natural world, having described himself as “a devout martyr of wildness” — a wild child. He was also a courageous inventor.

We made guns out of gas-pipe, mounted them on sticks of any shape, clubbed our pennies together for powder, gleaned pieces of lead here and there and cut them into slugs, and, while one aimed, another applied a match to the touch-hole. With these awful weapons we wandered along the beach and fired at the gulls and solan-geese as they passed us. Fortunately we never hurt any of them that we knew of. We also dug holes in the ground, put in a handful or two of powder, tamped it well around a fuse made of a wheat-stalk, and, reaching cautiously forward, touched a match to the straw. This we called making earthquakes. Oftentimes we went home with singed hair and faces well peppered with powder-grains that could not be washed out.

This is probably not the kind of boy you’d want your children out roaming the neighborhood with. Dangerous, unmannered, destructive perhaps. Certainly, you’ve never seen an “Inventing Guns and Shooting Sea Gulls” program on Saturday mornings at the nature center. And yet John Muir helped create the national park system, and his writing has fostered environmental values and behaviors in countless millions of people. My contention is that John Muir’s preservationist instincts grew in part out of these childhood experiences, which probably contributed more to his commitment to the natural world than learning the difference between sedimentary, metamorphic, and igneous rocks in the mandated third grade curriculum.

Or consider how Harvard entomologist and biodiversity advocate E. O. Wilson describes some of his early formative experiences in nature:

I hunted reptiles: stunned and captured five-lined skinks with a slingshot, and learned the correct maneuver for catching Carolina anole lizards (approach, let them scuttle to the other side of the tree trunk and out of sight, peek to see where they are sitting, then take them by grabbing blind with one hand around the trunk). One late afternoon I brought home a coachwhip snake nearly as long as I was tall and walked into the house with it wrapped around my neck.

Wilson, Muir, Rachel Carson, and Aldo Leopold all had such down-and-dirty experiences in childhood. Wilson didn’t just look at butterflies, he collected them. He didn’t take only photographs and leave only footprints, he caught ants and put them in jars to observe them. He was a collector, not a photographer, and he was allowed to indulge his curiosity without the scolding finger of an interfering adult. Generalizing from his own biographic experience, he summarizes, “Hands-on experience at the critical time, not systematic knowledge, is what counts in the making of a naturalist. Better to be an untutored savage for a while, not to know the names or anatomical detail. Better to spend long stretches of time just searching and dreaming.”

Herein lie my two main points. First, environmental educators need to allow children to be “untutored savages” for a while. Nature programs should invite children to make mud pies, climb trees, catch frogs, paint their faces with charcoal, get their hands dirty and their feet wet. They should be allowed to go off the trail and have fun. Second, environmental educators need to focus way more on hands-on experience with children and way less on systematic knowledge. Or at least understand that systematic knowledge can emerge organically from lots of hands-on experience. Between the ages of six and twelve, learning about nature is less important than simply getting children out into nature.

Terri, the Happy Hills naturalist, could have started the flower program right there in the meadow, having everyone make dandelion chains. (Call it “Removing Invasives” if you must.) She could have chosen three flowers to focus on that morning and challenged the children to learn to identify them blindfolded, by scent only. She might have had the children crawl through the meadow to see flowers at woodchuck level or given them dead bees on probes and challenged them to collect pollen from flowers with different structures. Out of these wild experiences, some systematic knowledge would have emerged. And Amanda and Ross might have said, “Wow, I never knew flowers were so cool!”

THINGS STARTED OUT DIFFERENTLY for environmental education. The summer camp movement, one of the precursors of nature and environmental education, emerged at the turn of the twentieth century and was founded on the principle of embracing the vigorous outdoors life. One of its proponents, Dr. Eugene Swan, was the founder of Pine Island Camp, a preeminent Maine camp for boys. He wrote, “It will do you more good . . . to sleep under boughs aslant, by a mountain lake with the trout broiling, than to see the Congressional Library or Niagara Falls.” And he believed that the “heeding of Nature’s ever-calling voice, and an adaptation of our lives to her laws, is going to become a salvation of the American race.” Swan advocated for the character-forming benefits of early morning plunges in the lake, living off the land, sleeping under the stars, midnight rituals, and complex fantastical games. He considered his camp to be “the village of Boyville,” where campers could be swept up by the “great adventure into the magic land of boyhood.” Similar adventures in Girlville soon followed.

He and his camp directors created the War Game, the Whitehead Game, and a raft of other large, complex landscape games that take place over hours or days and challenge boys to run long distances in the woods, creep secretively, detect subtle clues, endure swarms of mosquitos, behave valiantly and heroically. Campers were immersed in, at one with, and consumed by nature. They forded rivers, ate fish they caught and berries they collected, tromped through swamps, climbed trees, constructed forts, followed tracks, captured snakes, did all the things that John Muir, Rachel Carson, Aldo Leopold, and most of the other great naturalists did in their childhoods.

The Boy and Girl Scouts movments emerged not long after. The emphasis here was on primitive living skills — camping in the wilderness, building fires, making bows and arrows, preparing hides, tracking animals. In their original forms, these movements honored the deep inner desire in middle childhood to be self-sufficient, to learn how to survive with nothing but a jackknife and some strands of rawhide. The persistent popularity even today of Jean Craighead George’s books — such as My Side of the Mountain and Julie of the Wolves — suggests that these instincts still persist. The rage over Suzanne Collins’s The Hunger Games springs forth from this same deep well. These desires are encoded in our genes, compelling children to connect with their wild selves.

From the summer camp and Scouting roots, the environmental education movement emerged in the late ’60s and ’70s. It started out as nature education, but with all the bad news about rainforest destruction, the ozone hole, and toxics in the environment, it soon became dominated by a desire to recruit children to fix all these problems. The tendency to push things down onto developmentally unsuspecting young children, like the pressure to learn to read in kindergarten, led to the creation of a generation of children fearful of the death of the planet at the hands of uncaring humans. A UNESCO definition from the late ’70s says that “environmental education . . . should prepare the individual for life through an understanding of the major problems [emphasis mine] of the contemporary world, and the provision of skills and attributes needed to play a productive role towards improving life and protecting the environment.”

Meanwhile, in formal educational spheres, environmental education wanted to play with the big boys. It wanted to be more like reading and math and science, wanted to be more incorporated into the academic standards. As a result, environmental education got reduced to a set of facts to be mastered, content to be internalized and regurgitated. In the efforts to gain legitimacy and solve pressing problems, all the joy was sucked out of environmental education.

THE BIG QUESTION IS: what’s the most effective way to parent and educate children so that they will grow up to behave in environmentally responsible ways? Or, more specifically, what kinds of learning, or what kinds of experience, will most likely shape young adults who want to protect the environment, serve on conservation commissions, think about the implications of their consumer decisions, and minimize the environmental footprints of their personal lives and the organizations where they work? Interestingly, there’s an emergent body of research that’s starting to clarify the relationship between childhood experience and adult stewardship behavior.

First, a number of researchers surveyed environmentalists to determine if there were any similarities in their childhood experiences that might have led to their having strong ecological values or their choice of an environmental career. When Louise Chawla of the University of Colorado reviewed these studies, she found a striking pattern. Most environmentalists attributed their commitment to a combination of two sources, “many hours spent outdoors in a keenly remembered wild or semi-wild place in childhood or adolescence, and an adult who taught respect for nature.” Involvement with organizations like Scouts or environmental clubs was cited by significantly fewer of the respondents. Chawla found that environmentalists talk about free play and exploration in nature, and family members who focused their attention on plants or animal behavior. They don’t talk much about formal education and informal nature education. Only in late childhood and adolescence do summer camp, teachers, and environmental clubs start to show up as being contributors to the individual’s environmental values and behaviors. It seems that allowing children to be “untutored savages” early on can lead to environmental knowledge in due time.

Some researchers then said: Well, let’s not only look at environmentalists. How about the general public, Joe the plumber? What affects whether they develop environmental attitudes and behaviors? Nancy Wells and Kristi Lekies from Cornell University took on this question, and described their findings in “Nature and the Life Course: Pathways from Childhood Nature Experiences to Adult Environmentalism.” The study is based on interviews with two thousand adults (plumbers, teachers, accountants, nurses, policemen) ranging in age from eighteen to ninety, chosen randomly from more than one hundred urban areas around the country. The researchers compared three kinds of childhood nature experience — wild nature experience, domesticated nature experience, and environmental education. They found that

Childhood participation in “wild” nature, such as hiking or playing in the woods, camping, and hunting or fishing, as well as participation with “domesticated” nature such as picking flowers or produce, planting trees or seeds, and caring for plants in childhood have a positive relationship to adult environmental values. “Wild nature” participation is also positively associated with environmental behaviors in adulthood.

Let me translate and elaborate. They found that wild nature experience in childhood correlates with adult environmental values and behavior. Domesticated nature experience correlates with adult environmental values but not so much with behavior. Perhaps most surprising, the study found that, “participation in environmental education programs (in school, in Scouts, at camp, or in community environmental improvement programs) was not a significant predictor of either environmental attitudes or behaviors.”

Uh-oh! The whole environmental education community kind of flinched when this finding surfaced. But the researchers were quick to say that their surveys weren’t really fine grained enough to differentiate between environmental education experiences that were didactic and distancing versus those that were more hands-on, exploratory, and encouraged that kind of wild nature play that happens in Boyville. Either way, the take-away message remains the same: there’s something valuable in letting children wildly, gladly rejoice together. Catching frogs, making dandelion chains, gamboling through the meadows, playing Sally the Salamander all play a role in encouraging children to grow up into adults who recycle.

Jim Pease at Iowa State extended the investigation into the heartland, where he looked at this same relationship between childhood experiences and adult environmental stewardship behavior in farmers. He decided that he’d focus his study on farmers who took advantage of wetlands set-aside funding, which provides funding to farmers who voluntarily set aside some of their acreage from crop production and allow it to be used by migrating waterfowl. Essentially, they’re taking a reduction in income in order to help wildlife. He identified 300 similar Iowa farmers, 150 who took advantage of wetlands set-aside funding and 150 who didn’t. Then he did comprehensive interviews and questionnaires with all of them about their childhood experiences. He found that the farmers who displayed stewardship behavior had a statistically higher likelihood to report the following childhood experiences: hunting and fishing with parents as children, berry picking and mushroom collecting with parents as children, horseback riding, access to play in natural areas, and reading books about nature.

As was the case with the Wells and Lekies study, wild nature play, both unstructured or structured by parents but with the element of unpredictability in hunting and fishing and riding, were the experiences that seemed to incline the individual toward adult stewardship. In other words, it looks like activities that involve taking and eating (as opposed to just looking and learning), in conjunction with parents who model thoughtful use, are precursors to environmental behavior.

“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.” Luckily, there are numerous environmental education programs that allow children to play deeply in nature.

One organization that supports children’s freedom to roam, play, even build on preserved land is the Harris Center for Conservation Education. The Harris Center is a New Hampshire education center and land trust with one of the most comprehensive family engagement and education programs in northern New England. The staff recognizes that many adults with environmental values speak fondly of childhood experiences like fort building and attribute their land preservation values to these early experiences. Thus, one of their popular offerings for children is “The Forts, Shelters and Shanties Club.” The public announcement reads,

Build it, live it and love it! If you love building forts and want to find out how to build different styles of forts, shelters and even shanties, here’s your chance. Adventure awaits you in this club, as you create and build a wide range of different styles of outdoor and even a few indoor forts. Also included will be knot tying, fire building and wild tool construction.

During one afternoon a week for six weeks, children develop those foundational skills that were at the heart of Baden Powell’s original conception of Scouting — woodcraft, living off the land, observation. And, from the Harris Center’s perspective, they are also, hopefully, becoming future contributors to land preservation initiatives.

Wildly, gladly rejoicing together has taken root in the heartland as well. For a number of years, the Minnetrista gardens and cultural center in Muncie, Indiana, has conducted a Flower Fairies program. For three weeks prior to the Midsummer’s Eve, a dancer trains local children to each develop a flower fairy persona. This program started out being for girls, but when boys expressed an interest, they were allowed to participate as well. Each child chooses a flower, learns its attributes, and then develops a movement repertoire based on the flower’s attributes. The child and teacher also develop a costume based on the appearance of the flower. For two or three nights around the summer solstice, the center invites the community to come stroll the brick pathways through the preserved Ball Estate Victorian gardens. The candlelit pathways are haunted with glimpses of flower fairies frolicking amid the azaleas, lilies, and periwinkle. A child’s intrigue with fairies, and the desire to be a fairy, is used as the bridge to understanding the unique appearance and character of different flowers. Isn’t this a foundational understanding of biodiversity? Wouldn’t you rather do this than sit through Terri’s PowerPoint?

For a particularly inspiring look at how things could be different, allow me to take you on a down-and-dirty outing with the Wilderness Youth Project in Santa Barbara, California. We assemble at Tucker’s Grove County Park, a sliver of creek and forest nestled in between subdivisions. Not really wilderness, but it feels wild enough and far enough away for children to feel immersed. There are about a dozen children aged seven to eleven — black, white, Latino — three leaders, and a handful of parents. The vibe is upbeat and energetic. No PowerPoints here. We circle up in the meadow and get our marching orders: explore our way up the dry streambed till we get to a sheltered pool with great mud for a mud fight.

Not far up the trail, there’s a steep bank down to the dry creekbed. A couple of youngsters start to seat-slide down the crumbly bank. It’s messy and a bit fast yet there are no admonitions to stay on the trail. Rather, one leader goes down to the bottom to catch kids and dust them off, while another stays at the top to manage the flow. A few hundred yards up the trail, we come upon a fallen oak. Kids immediately jump up to balance-beam walk along the trunk and limbs then jump off. It’s a little risky. But instead of hustling them along, the leaders realize this kind of spontaneous play is exactly what the children need to be doing.

Round the next bend, we come to a fence with a gate. Most everyone goes through the gate, but one of the boys wants to try to climb over the fence, which is topped with a strand of barbed wire. I brace myself for the typical adult response, “No, José, you might rip your pants,” or “Why don’t you just go through the gate?” or “Let me lift you over,” or “Please stop that! It’s too dangerous.” Instead, as soon as Kelly, one of the mentors, recognizes his intention, she says, “Great idea to try to climb over, José. Would you like me to spot you?” Once he’s over, she crows, “Good job! I knew you could do it.” I’m impressed that his intention is noticed, validated, and encouraged. Moreover, she refrains from overinvolvement, providing just enough support to make the process reasonably safe but letting him solve the problem. A supportive, can-do attitude prevails, and fear is banished.

When we come upon a child-sized fort, made by a previous group to simulate a wood rat’s nest, the children immediately start to crawl through it. Becka says, “This is so awesome. I am so not afraid in here. I could live here and do all my projects here.” As soon as she is out, she says, “I’m going to do it again,” and there was time for that.

A few minutes later some of the boys find a little hole in the trail and wonder what made it. They probe it with sticks and then decide to hide some treasures in it, cover it up, and look for it on the way back. An hour later — though it’s hard to differentiate this stretch of trail from sections that look just like it, and no adult reminds them to look — they remember the spot and are thrilled to unearth an acorn, a marble rock, a sprig of clover. What an appropriate way to develop observation skills — all self-constructed by the children.

One of the kids captures a big, hoppy bug in his hands and shows it to Mark, one of the mentors. I prepare myself for the boring mini natural history lecture, “Oh, that’s Idiostatus aequalis. We call it a California katydid and it only lives in the west-facing coastal chaparral slopes. It has six legs and three body parts — the head, abdomen, and the thorax, and blah, blah, blah . . .” Instead, Mark says, “Hmm, I wonder what that is? Hey, how many legs does it have? Wow, look at those big eyes — they look kind of greenish to me. What color do they look like to you? What should we call this bug?” Later on, during a snack break, Mark pulls out an insect guide, finds the right page, and passes it to the children who had been looking at the insect. Instead of saying, “I think it’s the California katydid,” he says, “Does that bug we found on the trail look like any one of the bugs on this page?” The whole orientation is to encourage the kids to observe, wonder, see patterns, and make sense of things. Names and concepts, environmental knowledge, emerged organically out of these hands-on explorations.

We arrive back at the meadow, wet, mud-smeared, laughing. One of the children says, unprompted, “Three hours isn’t enough for these trips. We should do five hours. We should do all day! We should build forts and live out here.” It was as if the children had dropped into their wild selves and become creatures of the woods, comfortable and at home in their minds, bodies, and native habitats. It had been just about a mile up and back, but so much had happened. There was never any talk about global warming or endangered species, but there was ample opportunity to become one with the natural world. And all the children were eager to come back and do it again.

This is the kind of environmental education that I believe leads to environmental values and behaviors in adulthood — education that originates in children’s innate play tendencies in the natural world; supports and allows wild nature play; recognizes the importance of hunting, gathering, collecting, and, when appropriate, consuming the natural world; encourages adults and children to explore and learn together so adults can model attention and respect; and supports children’s appetite for imagination and fantasy. It’s environmental education that allows boys to live in Boyville, girls to live in Girlville, and kids to live in Kidville for a while before rushing them out of the woods into Adultville.

As John Burroughs once said, “Knowledge without love will not stick. But if love comes first, knowledge is sure to follow.” It’s our responsibility as parents and teachers to make sure that love comes first.

This article, along with other landmark Orion essays about education, are collected in a new anthology, Leave No Child Inside. Order your copy here.

David Sobel is an education writer who has helped in developing the philosophy of place-based education. He has written extensively on the topic in books and numerous articles. He is currently a Core Faculty member and Director of Certificate Programs at Antioch University New England. He has published five books including Childhood and Nature: Design Principles for Educators (2008), Place-Based Education: Connecting Classrooms and Communities (2004), and Beyond Ecophobia: Reclaiming the Heart in Nature Education (1996).


  1. 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.

  2. “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.

  3. 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 !

  4. 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.

  5. 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…

  6. 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.

  7. 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.

  8. 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!! 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.”

  9. At 25 years old, I feel that my generation was at the cusp of a massive shift in childhood experience.

    As as a young kid, my sister, younger brother, and a few friends and I would venture off–unsupervised-as far as our bikes or legs could take us. My early memories are filled with catching tadpoles, jumping barefoot from rock to rock at the river, running into packs of javelinas, smashing rocks to see how they brake and what they look like inside, catching toads and lizards, climbing trees, and covering ourselves in mud. On of us would say “let’s have an adventure!” and we knew just how to get started.

    I’ve talked to people my age and a lot of them have similar experiences. the degree varies depending on how urban their upbringing or their parent’s influences, but in my own observations, people now 25 to 20 were the last crop of kids where the majority know what it means to only come home for dinner.

    I noticed a difference start to take place when I turned eleven; the year we got a video game console and the computer started to look more interesting. The change was gradual for me, but in the years that followed, the freckles on my face faded away.

    The worst casualties were my youngest siblings who were born when I was 10 and 11. They started playing video games before they could talk and “going on an adventure” became turning on a power button. Now my youngest brother is 15 and when he reflected on his childhood recently, he found he has no stories to tell. I took him on a hike and he felt neither a connection with nor a sense of wonder at any of it.

    Something big has changed in the course of my childhood. It’s more than video games; I can see institutionalized barriers that prevent children from wild play. I think a big one is the current adults’ lack of trust in children (starting from infants on up) and a general disconnect with our communities (atomizing everything), both human and non-human. I would like to know the physical, social, and institutional factors that have caused this cultural shift so I can better help the kids I know and my own future children develop a deep relationship with other-than-human beings (and human beings, while we’re at it). Any ideas?

  10. David Sobel has been an outspoken critic of traditional environmental education. His book Ecophobia is a requisite reading for anyone working with children in the outdoors. Sobel describes the inappropriate behavior of an environmental educator, talking to others in a condescending parent voice. Unfortunately these folks are out there. Four to six years of misanthropic environmental studies classes at universities creates these folks. Yet, I would hate for readers to discount their local nature centers as places to take the family on a regular basis. First, nature centers are local places and easily accessible–daily visits are possible. In some major cities there are nature centers within a 15 minute commute for everyone in the area. Nature centers that are associated with the Association for Nature Center Administrators have been accutely aware of Sobel’s and others work for many years and are establishing nature play areas where children can engage in self-directed unstructured play, nature preschools where most instruction is outdoors even when it rains, revising summer nature camp curriculum to include play and fort building, and eliminating condescending environmentalist “parent voice” interactions that insult visitors. Regularly visit your local nature center and support it with donations. If it is one of the few that is still stuck back in the 1980s help it to change.

  11. Hold on. A child trying to climb over a barbed wire-topped fence gets “great idea to try to climb over Jose. Would you like me to spot you?” And that’s supposed to be an example of letting kids explore on their own? Come on, either let the kid climb over the fence, or tell him to use the gate, and tell him why. In trying to have it both ways too many “learn-by-experiencing” educators today are not really tossing out the rules, they’re just imposing a new set.

    Growing up, my friends and I spent lots of time in the woods and fields and learned how to get through, under, or over wood, barbed wire, and electric fences. We learned by experimentation but we also learned from those among us who already knew stuff. Those who knew taught the rest of us. Yes, some learning happens through trial and error, but a lot of important learning still happens when someone more experienced or knowledgeable shares what they know. But even the least experienced among my friends and I would have viewed any adult who offered to stand guard, and then praised us for climbing over barbed wire, as acting very unadultlike; maybe even stupid. Their credibility would have been shot.

    Kids do need to be able to climb trees, collect things, dig holes, build forts, and take risks. But parents who won’t let their kids do those things in their own or someone else’s yard; or who sign covenents that forbid some of those activities where they choose to live, shouldn’t expect to take their kids to a nature center and complain when other adults won’t let them do it there either. Not to mention that it’s a basic misunderstanding of the important roles that institutions like nature centers, conservancies, museums and other places offering the “programs” that Sobel maligns, serve in our society.

    Nature centers and other public places, including the the Lady Bird Johnson Wildflower Center, serve a different purpose than our backyards. They welcome the public to experience their resources today, but also, hopefully, want to be able to do so for a very long time to come. What is not fragile when handled, touched, collected, or walked on by one family becomes quite a different matter when thousands or millions of people are to be able to experience the same place far into the future.

    There are many places and institutions that serve a variety of interests. Let’s not expect every one of them to conform to the same expectations. Some kids will find a life-changing experience in “sleeping under the boughs” but some will find it in a visit to the Congressional Library or Niagara Falls.

    Most kids won’t grow up to be geologists, but some will. And some really are interested in learning what sedimentary, igneous, and metamorphic rocks are. Those kids who go to a nature center because they truly want to learn more about flowers and insects, only to be told to sit down and make a daisy chain, or to “crawl through the meadow to see flowers at woodchuck level…” won’t be back. We can do better.

  12. I loved this article. Thank you, David, for writing this.

    I am an environmental educator and I try to leave my classes as unstructured as possible. I believe in the importance of outdoor play and encourage children to make their own discoveries. I’ve had children exclaim “I love nature. Yesterday after camp, I went home and my friends and I went on a nature hike.” I could have cried tears of joy…this is exactly what I wanted to hear. Another camper of mine told me “I love this camp. Nature is so cool. I love that we get to catch animals in the pond and river every day.” Kids have so many restrictions today and their parents do not realize the value in nature play. I hope to change this.

    Sobel’s article hit it right on the head–I entered the environmental field out of a love for nature; fostered by years of camping, hiking, fishing, and playing outside as a kid. For a 5th grade biography report, I chose Rachel Carson because I was inspired by her life’s work…at that moment I knew that I would dedicate my life to this field. I couldn’t imagine working in any other field.

    I believe that I am paying it forward by introducing kids to outdoor play–hoping they too will fall in love with their environment and aspire to become little Rachel Carsons themselves.

    A few weeks, while out on the trail with my class hunting for butterflies, I was approached by a disgruntled hiker. She very accusingly asked “are you capturing the butterflies or just observing them?” I looked at her with confusion and replied “capturing, but don’t worry, we release them afterward.” With a scowl, she replied “well, are aware that butterflies are extremely delicate and by capturing them you are wiping the powder off their wings and killing them?” Before I could come up with any kind of polite response, she stormed off up the hill and out of site. I watched her walk away and thought to myself “I’d rather let kids pull the legs off insects and learn about them more deeply than carefully observe them from afar…”

  13. How do we help others, individuals and agencies to really understand the value of this idea?

    As I was reading the article and comments the vision of my two girls and a neighbor came to mind….

    Our well had broken and was being repaired and we had been without running water for several days. My girls (5,& 10) asked if they could take a bath in our creek…a small running rivulet in a ravine. I told them sure, so they came in and got soap, shampoo, towels and headed out to the creek…Alone…in about an hour they came back (clean) laughing and saying how they couldn’t wait to tell everyone that they had bathed in our creek!
    This is what the world is missing! Our own real experiences that are seared in our minds forever!

  14. I’m not an environmental educator, just a parent of a three year old. I loved this article because it caused me to reflect my parenting style as my son becomes older. I want him to have wonderful outdoor adventures. I agree with Sarah Bear that the childhood experience has greatly shifted. Though I do think a lot does have to do with technology, there are several other reasons I believe this is so. Letting a child wonder and not have contact with an adult for hours on end is practically considered child abuse/neglect by a majority of parents. Also in our sue-happy society who would allow their children’s friends to accompany them on hikes/camping away from strict parental supervision, thus one of the other children get hurt and the parents sue.

    I wish I knew the answer to making sure my son gets the same sense of adventure I felt as a kid. I fear he will be overly concerned with breaking bones, deadly diseases caused by mosquitoes, and strangers who lurk around looking for unsupervised children.

    Thank you for such a thought provoking article!

  15. My three young boys (8, 4, and 3) play in a creek bed three blocks from our house a couple of times a week. When they see litter down there, they get angry because it shows that someone did not give their creek the respect that they think it deserves.

    On the other hand, they routinely pull down branches from trees to make imaginary swords, skip stones on the creek, and dig at the exposed creek bed.

    In sum, they’re developing a love for that place as they interact with it very closely.

    They will be forever changed by their childhood days in our creek. They would not be nearly as engaged there if they were “educated” by adult experts.

  16. I grew up a few blocks from the Arnold Arboretum, and I spent my summers climbing the trees that are now impossible to climb. I can’t imagine what my summers would have been like if I had to treat the Arboretum like an art museum. Granted, it’s not a park in the traditional sense, an arboretum is supposed to be a tree “museum” after all. Outdoor sports activities were not allowed there when I was growing up, but we could at least run around and poke at whatever we found without fear of reprisal. It’s strange to think 30 plus years later the kids in my old neighborhood probably do not feel welcome in the place where I spent many summer days. Will they feel any connection with nature as they get older ?

  17. I loved this article through and through! It made me want to yell AMEN! even though I never say the word. And it re-energized me to keep taking my kids and other kids into parks and trails and creeks and meadows and just let them be. For the past 4 years I’ve done just that with Outside Kids (http://www.goingoutsidekids.com/). It’s been fun to watch the kids, but it’s also the adult that are fun to observe. Us grownups need to make daisy chains and find frogs, too.

    Thanks to Orion for publishing a great article and to David Sobel for telling it like it is.

  18. Great article! I grew up in a small town with forested areas. While we still played video games, my father would take us fishing, we’d pick and eat berries and always walk in the woods. My friends had a tree fort that they built, (he’s a carpenter now and his sister a PhD in neuroscience). Whenever I have a chance I take my nephew outside where he is truly happiest at nearly 2 years old. I’m the “bad” aunt who lets him jump in puddles and throw rocks in the lake. This weekend we’ll be letting him run around Waterton National Park and I’m sure my dad will take him fishing too.

  19. Dear Orion Magazine,
    Your July/August 2012 article, “Look, Don’t Touch” points out much that is wrong with environmental education today. Those challenges are precisely why the Lady Bird Johnson Wildflower Center will launch the Luci Johnson and Ian Turpin Family Garden. This four acre garden, designed by Gary Smith, will include a giant play lawn for kites and tag, a hedge maze where children can get “lost”, a “stumpery” for hide and seek, a creek where kids can get wet, and more. Scattered throughout will be natural play things like seed pods, sticks, and moss for building fairy houses. A garden can often serve as a bridge between the paved world and wild nature. We invite you to return and experience our new garden of “yes!”
    Carolyn Long
    Advisory Council Chair
    Lady Bird Johnson Wildflower Center
    Austin, TX

  20. What a great conversation! Thanks to everyone for your serious, heartfelt, provocative and challenging responses. A couple of thoughts.

    First, I’m completely appreciative of the examples by parents and environmental educators of healthy wild play. Plowboy, I am thrilled by your courageous parenting and your encouraging your children to explore the creek, stay outside all day, and learn how to deal the copperheads. And congratulations for standing up for your values with the other parents in your neighborhood that think you’re negligent. You have the best interests of your children in mind.

    Bill, I really appreciated your sharing of your childhood experiences of God in the rustling grass, in all things. I read your description in a Childhood and Nature course I taught over this past weekend in which we were talking about children’s spiritual experiences in nature. You’d be interested in a couple of books– The Original Vision: A Study of the Religious Experience of Childhood by Edward Robinson and Visions of Innocence: Spiritual and Inspirational Experiences of Childhood by Edward Hoffman–which both include descriptions of similar kinds of transcendent experiences in middle childhood. These kinds of experiences can be life-shaping and one of our goals should be to maximize the opportunity for children to slip into these moments. I suspect that potentially happens when Amy’s girls go down to the creek, by themselves, for a bath. (But aren’t you just waiting for someone to criticize you for allowing them to introduce soap into this ecosystem? I probably wouldn’t let my kids make a habit of it, but once in a while–how fun–and I’d give them biodegradeable Dr. Bronner’s)

    And thanks to Patti Deneen and Carolyn Long for articulating the distinctive offerings of nature centers and places like the Lady Bird Johnson Wildlife Center, a special and beautiful place. As Patti says, some public places have different purposes than our backyards and deserve a different level of protection. I don’t want kids ripping up my perennial beds to make forts. Where possible, though, we should provide access to woods, vacant lots, and beaches where kids can manipulate things and mess about. How great that the Wildflower Center has created a new family garden of “yes” that serves as a bridge between the paved world and wild nature.

  21. Thank you for reminding me why I became an outdoor educator. I will keep this article in mind as I enter into the upcoming school year.

  22. While I agree wholeheartedly with David’s central message, that unmediated, playful contact with the natural world is essential for children, for all of us; surely there are some things which must also be taught, namely basic care and respect for the other lives who share the Earth with us. The fact that these others are not our playthings, that they have their own lives, and that our ways and habits can do them harm is not something we are born into the world understanding. We might learn that accidentally, but we might not.

    I grew up trying to prevent my young peers from smashing frogs with rocks and pulling the legs off of grasshoppers and shooting squirrels with BB guns just for the “fun” of it. I’m afraid we do not always learn love for the natural world through our unsupervised childhood contact with it.

    In our culture we are taught that the Earth exists as a resource for us to do with as we please. The voices repeating that message are loud and many. We hear that over and over.

    Surely one of the roles of environmental education is to demonstrate the opposite, that other lives exist for their own sake and their own reasons and have their own ways, which are not our ways. This can be done, it is not that hard to do and to model. Just as we all must learn to balance our own desires with the needs of others, it requires a balance between free play and self restraint. Mostly, it requires us adults to embody that basic respect and understanding in our own manner, in our own lives. How we live probably matters a whole lot more to our children than what we say, or what they hear at a nature center.

  23. I loved this article, though it broke my heart. It touches on many of themes in Richard Louv’s book, Last Child in the Woods, but adds its own tender note.
    With Kate Thompson, I teach a course called “Wild Places Lost and Found: Writing the Places of Our Hearts, Mind and Souls.” It is apparent that the places we grow up in shape who we become as adults, in much the same way our family systems influence us. If our kids never experience the soft touch of grass, the wild dance of tree branches in the wind, the incredible joy of a beach beckoning in the early morning, who will they grow up to be?
    The earth is primary and we humans are secondary, though we have forgotten this. By separating from nature, we change the very “nature” of who we are.
    If we are to face the planetary challenges that confront us, we all (adult and childen alike) need to begin to reconnect with Mother Earth.

  24. For those interested in growing young people’s interest in the outdoors, it is hard to acknowledge the fact that Mother Nature has already perfected the means to the end – what is even harder is fighting the compulsion to ‘improve’ what 80,000 generations-worth of coaching has already wired into us. The finest computer gaming programmers alive should, if there are honest with ones, gasp in awe at the sophistication, beauty and infinite qualities diversity of nature- not to mention the dynamic integration with the internal coding of the user. Put straight – kids are born with the instinct – get them outside and let it happen. Or, better yet, let THEM teach YOU something.

    The lightbulb will never go on the wiring is not put in its proper place.

  25. The reality is that anyone reading this article or any article about the outdoors or envirnomental education is someone who already cares deeply. The intellectualization and misinformation that has come from the divorce of people from the sights, sounds, smells, tastes and touch of the natural world are the true culprits for the demise of children’s love for their place in the wild. The research is out there as Mr. Sobel demonstrates in this article. The numerous organizations and agencies who’s mission it is to value and protect the outdoors now need to weave together to create a united and correctly informed front in bringing back nature to human development.

  26. Great discussion – David, thank you for your article and starting the tremendous string of thoughts and reflections!

    I first read the cited authors in this discussion when I was working as a law enforcement ranger. If children were building a “house” in the park’s forest, I was supposed to tell them to return to the trail so they didn’t trample vegetation. I’d often overlook such situations, because I was happy they were “connecting” with the natural world. As many of you mentioned, such activities are what I remember doing myself as a child.

    Some behaviors were harder to justifiably ignore. For instance, if a child was “mowing down” wildflowers with a stick or collecting piles of mica-flaked shiny rocks, I knew I had to act. But I was still torn: should I preserve environmental integrity or encourage children’s interaction with nature through play, which I intuitively knew was as important as the park’s environmental education lessons?

    The lesson I was “supposed” to give to rule-breaking children was: “Hi there! I see you are taking some of the park’s rocks. I want you to think about what would happen if every child in the park took just one rock home with them. Would there be any rocks left for other visitors to enjoy?”

    Since leaving the park, I’ve questioned whether this lesson is truly the best way to approach children in our parks and natural areas. This question led into my past three years graduate research on the development of natural play areas (NPAs) where children are allowed to break the rules normally in place at protected natural areas. There are dozens of NPAs across the U.S., and I hear about another being built monthly.

    I highly recommend those parents and educators in favor of children’s “wild play” in nature to investigate whether your neighborhood has a NPA. Be aware that they may be called something different than an NPA; many are named in imaginative ways. If you can’t find one, think about starting one in a safe, publically owned forest near you! Nature centers, charter schools, and community gardens/parks are good places to start. Realize that NPAs are inexpensive and quick to develop, and I believe their popularity will only grow in upcoming years.

    If any readers are protected natural area managers, I encourage you to consider developing an NPA on your lands. NPAs offer tremendous benefits in a small package; they are usually sized less than one acre and rarely more than two. Despite this small size, they can accommodate tens of thousands of children annually. The potential ecosystem services they would provide if more thoroughly protected as “no-touch” parks or nature reserves would likely be quite small compared to the value provided to children. I’ve developed strategies for managing these areas in environmentally sustainable ways, and I’d be happy to discuss these strategies with any managers who’d like to contact me directly.

  27. I am a 13 year old Boy Scout who has been involved with the organization for 7 years. I recently traveled to Alaska from Maui, Hawaii and participated in a camp where I learned about wildlife and how to survive in most environments. I agree wholeheartedly with David Sobel because children need as much experience they can get with the environment and also with their “wild sides”. I hiked with my Boy Scout troop over Mt. Denali. We hiked a total of 18 miles of breathtaking views. On the second day we had reached another campsite and it had obvious signs that previous hikers have been there because there were scraps of garbage. As Boy Scouts we cleaned everything up so it looked like no one else had camped there. Before this adventure, my Boy Scout troop was not very happy. There was always a conflict or friction in the troop but going on this trip and connecting with our “wild sides” brought us closer than ever before and made us a much happier troop. It’s been a week since returning to Maui, our troop is still peaceful and we are like a family, we are all brothers in the same adventure. I feel that all children should do campouts and experience the environment and have adventures of their own so they can connect with their “wild sides” and feel one with nature! I had the experience of a lifetime and I believe others should experience it as well.

    Mitchell Harper
    Maui, Hawaii
    Troop 22

  28. Wonderful post, David. You’ve nailed one of the dilemmas in getting/ keeping kids interested in Nature: How do we do that without loving Nature to death?
    But just because one’s kids are outdoors doesn’t mean there’s no need for some discipline. They are still in someone’s house.
    We must get past this notion that, if there are rules, then it’s boring. Maybe the answer is to balance those valuable lessons with at least some time for unstructured, unsupervised play, where kid’s get to make their own rules — maybe just not in a fragile place.

  29. I loved your comments on what can be even in formal education settings which is my world.

    It reminded me of the nature study movement and of including nature study in formal settings without stifling it or learners. There is a wonderful essay by Project 2061’s, F. James Rutherford titled “The Character of Elementary School Science” (Science and Children, January 1987). I think most people reading it would not guess that he is a physicist and was the co-author of a beautiful high school physics text (“Project Physics”).

    I also recalled one of the criteria Project 2061 used for selecting concepts that justify universal public education: “Childhood Enrichment. Will the proposed content enhance childhood (a time of life that is important in its own right and not solely for what it may lead to in later life.”

    The mid-nineteenth-century naturalist Louis Agassiz’s vision for engaging learners in studying the natural world was a mandate that students should “study nature, not books.” In a remarkable study, Sally Gregory Kohlstedt, traces the curriculum movement known as nature study, one in which scientists played a role. (“Nature Study: Teaching Hands-On Science in North America, 1890-1930, U. Chicago Press).

    And finally, I thought of a still favorite essay by Ted Williams (“Why Johnny Shoots Stop Signs.” Audubon, September 1988) which has remarkable parallels with your essay.

    I can’t close without advice from a deep student of nature and of being “out there” taking whatever is given. “Nice? It’s the only thing,” said the Water Rat solemnly, as he leant forward for his stroke. “Believe me, my young friend, there is nothing—absolutely nothing—half so much worth doing as simply messing about in boats. Simply messing,” he went on dreamily, “messing—about—in—boats—messing—“ He, of course ran his boat into the bank but didn’t miss a beat and went on “—about in boats—or with boats….In or out of ‘em, it doesn’t matter. Nothing seems really to matter, that’s the charm of it. Whether you get away, or whether you don’t’ whether you arrive at your destination or whether you reach somewhere else, or whether you never get anywhere at all, you’re always busy, and you never do anything in particular; and when you’ve done it there’s always something else to do, and you can do it if you like, but you’d much better not.” (Kenneth Grahame, “The Wind in the Willows”)

    Again, thanks. This essay is one I will let others know about.

  30. I read this wonderful article last night and am so glad it’s been written. Treating “fragile” nature with a museum mentality is misguided and sad, as is thinking conceptual or scientific knowing is the only kind. As a child in the 50s, I grew up playing freely outside and wandering in the woods, and even the later nature walks and “programs” couldn’t kill the natural ecstatic imagination–although I still wince and chuckle whenever confronted with a diorama. At least for me, and I am sure for many children, sensuous intensity and joy is nature’s first and lasting gift. Without that connection, concepts are dry as dust.

  31. I have enjoyed the discussion and many people make very good points. I think Patty Dineen’s comments approach what I was trying to say as well.

    I think there is a bit of dichotomy between what kids can and should get at parks and nature centers vs. what they should get at home. Kids need access to vacant lots, woodlots, streams and other quasi-wild areas where they can truly explore and learn on their own. Nature centers are good for more structured programs with adult guidance. In the backyards and woodlots kids can build forts, dam streams, catch butterflies. At nature centers and other public areas of limited size, such potentially destructive activities might have to be restricted.

    The rub is that suburbanization and privatization of what once might have been available to kids as “wild” outdoors has left kids with parks and nature centers as their only “wild” area to explore. We need vacant lands where kids can do their thing. Landowners need to allow kids on their land, parents need to relax and let their kids run. I talk to parents who say it is too dangerous to let their kids out of sight, and I meet landowners too afraid of lawsuits to let kids on their land. But there are exceptions and I’ve seen no evidence that the more permissive parents and landowners suffer because of it. And the evidence that the kids benefit from relaxed control and vigilance is strong.

    Certainly nature centers and environmental educators can do better. But I don’t think they will make that much difference, even with the best programs, if parents and the broader community do not encourage children to explore and enjoy freedoms in the outdoors outside their backdoors.

  32. I had a mini Muir childhood in Wisconsin jumping creeks, throwing stones, building rafts, forts and bouncing on vine covered bushes along a parkway. The summer was endless and I felt safe though daring until the sun set and we raced home for dinner. My grandchildren and students in Miami need more of this as I ache for their lack of joy and comfort in nature. I made a school sized mud kitchen for my younger students in the spring and we played in the oozing mud. This year perhaps wood scraps and hammers for older students to construct with if the small space behind the art room has not been taken over. Art and nature go together, don’t they?
    I am growing more Florida natives and hiding places for the grandchildren in my side yard. Thanks for all the encouragement. I love ORION!

  33. I too, grew up wild in the woods outside Cleveland, Ohio. Being a twin, I always had a pal to run through the woods with. We had total freedom to climb trees, slide down the ravine, follow the creek and catch crayfish and lizards, by turning over the rocks in the stream to discover what might be hiding there. We slid down the slippery slate creek bottom and wallowed in the small pools. We swung across the ravine on large hanging grapevines, howling like Tarzan and Jane! We discovered that maggots eat dead animals and laid in deer beds of flattened grass and ate wild blackberries and watched cloud pictures. We had ponies and rode bareback down the trail at the top of the ravine, free and with the wind in our faces. Our older sister would sometimes walk with us and, when we asked, would tell us the names of all the trees and plants we encountered. We slept under the stars in our own backyard, with her telling us stories of Pecos Bill and the Blue Ox.
    My poetry is infused with descriptive, introspection about and within nature. I am playful and exuberant in nature, loving the lakes and streams and cottonwoods that surround my present time home. I encourage my peers to come with me in nature and to sit in the sand, throw sticks, look deeply at the rocks and leaves that are free for all of us to enjoy. I appreciate our place in all of nature, as a part of it, not separate. It is who we are! Thanks for letting me tell my story!
    You get the picture! I use this deep place of nature to go to in my mind whenever I feel the rush of life, the hardships, the losses, or the need to create, the need to calm myself and take a step back to take a look at life. I love nature now, I have a great respect and sense of wonder for all things natural. I still climb trees at 58 yrs old. I was at a creek last week and found a tree that had fallen across it and scampered over to the other side. Then forded the river on my return. I noticed a little boy

  34. I really identify with Dr. Sobel’s comments. As a kid catching turtles, frogs, snakes and insects, I grew to love their beauty. Some I kept, some I killed to look inside and the rest I let go free. Today, as an adult, I take pictures and am less likely to handle them. I still appreciate their beauty and would rather be outside than in.

    My ‘job’ figuratively and literally is to pass on my appreciation for nature.

  35. The story was wonderful, however, you missed one of the real problems the environmental programs experience. They are typically constrained on small parcels of land. This means, if they let everyone experience nature, then the small environment could be degraded and no longer useable for its intended success.
    It contributes to the catch 22. We want as many people as possible to interact with nature, but if too many interact in these small space they will be destroyed.

  36. This is such a good article that it made me renew my subscription to Orion. I plan to have my students read it, too.

  37. I grew up on 8 acres of forest hiiside/swamp north of Seattle. Just a few miles from Gary Snyder’s childhood home too. Us neighborhood boys ran wild in the woods. We dammed the creek, built forts, dug bunkers, fought wars with spear-ferns ( never cared to learn the taxonomy) and made rifles out of broomsticks.
    We hiked in the Cascades when we got older.
    Now I live off=grid in northern BC.
    I was a teacher, and well know how instruction kills interest.
    The problem is that Nature is not available to the vast majority of children. And parks necessarily cant be ravaged as we did our woods.

  38. So True… I have taken over as a camp director for a now wildly popular camp program. I am on a mission to change the way a naturalist / teacher, teaches about nature. It has been tough to change the way us adults likes to do things. But the way I have trained my staff is to explore first and answer questions later. I personal feel it is more important to spark a sense of wonder then insert the info. Yes, it means we did not categorize all the trees we have seen on our dendrology walk, but when a five year old, say to his mother, “I need to show you the Liriodendron (tulip tree) I made friends with today.” I’m in my glory. The difference for me is, I may not have shared everything I know, but what I have shared will stick with them forever.

    Thank you, for putting in such clean words, what I have though for a long time. I will be sharing this article with coworkers.

  39. “Environmental educators need to allow children to be “untutored savages” for a while.”

    Agreed! We learn by falling, not succeeding. We learn by getting our hands wet and our feet dirty, feeling the wind in our hair, the grass underfoot. Children only need occasional direction…not a micro play-by-play of how to be children. They get it.

    We’ve become “professionals” at environmental education and in the process lost the point of it. Let them play. Guide them only a bit….and for heaven’s sake, let them pick up the frog.

    Good piece.

  40. From 2009 – 2011, we lived overseas. During those two years, my children (now ages 4 and 9) became free range children. My daughter’s preschool’s activities were centered around nature and play. My son would leave in the morning, come home before dusk, a filthy, happy, dirt digging, outback exploring boy.

    As much as we deprive kids of nature in modern American living, I believe it’s rooted in more than just thinking the environment needs to be ‘saved.’

    We are afraid to let our kids out because of imagined harm.

    Little do we realize how dangerous unfettered technology is on their minds.

    Now in my work as a coach, writer and educator, I’m working with others to re-ignite their love affair with nature.

    I can think of no single gift more meaningful to our children than to really share with them the beauty of this world.

    We are hungry for connection to one another and the natural world.

    Detoxifying our lives means touching primal parts of ourselves.

    Great article!

  41. Because we’ve destroyed so much of our landscape, all we have left are guarded “preserves”.

  42. To me, the gist is making emotional connections to the land that are positive.

    Free-play, creative time, wonder, time with friends…are all part of that.

    While I am trained in science, I now coach land trusts to stop telling people what they think they should know and instead begin to find the places of wonder with them.

    Creating places that are set up for exploration is increasingly important as there is less and less opportunity to do this, as a kid, on one’s own time.

  43. These are such important ideas for environmental educators to consider, especially since they are often reaching out to kids who have so few experiences in nature. Think about the psychological message you are sending to a child when you instruct them to “leave no trace.” They may hear “I’m likely to mess something up; I don’t really belong here.” Does a coyote or a caterpillar leave no trace?
    Kids who love nature become adults who respect and protect nature. I can relate to those who want to jump in and make sure kids aren’t mowing down the wildflowers and pulling the legs off of insects. But during ten years of environmental education, I have rarely encountered that kind of behavior. Most kids who learn basic empathy and compassion towards others naturally extend that to non-humans as well.
    Just to clarify, I’m not suggesting we scrap The Leave No Trace Principles, but rather rethink how we are presenting this to kids who rarely get to spend time in nature.

  44. I couldn’t agree more that wild unadulterated nature play is the prime means to instill a durable connection to the non-human, non-synthetic world. I grew up in the upstate NY countryside spending my free time plying the ponds, woods and fields, creating countless adventures with siblings and friends. A fawn frozen to death curled peacefully in the deep snows of a freak spring squall. A brother-induced brush fire raging through the summer-parched back fields. A frog impaled on an improvised spear made of a swiss-army knife lashed reed. Experiences of awe, delight, pain, exhaustion and, yes, I admit with a twinge of remorse, even boyhood destruction and cruelty. These experiences, I am sure, produced my own “environmental values and behaviors”, to quote Sobel. As I giddily await my first child, I am delighted knowing that I will relive my childhood days with a new human being soaking up all of nature’s creativity. To be sure, amidst the deluge of pseudo-social connectivity and promises of tech-based deliverance to happiness it will be a challenge. But in my heart I know the awes of unfettered nature will dwarf anything the ipad or its descendants can ever deliver.

  45. I’m all for unstructured outdoor play and for allowing children the risks inherent in climbing and exploration. But I’m surprised at the cavalier attitude Sobel and many commenters take toward cruelty, or at least insensitivity, children can show toward animals. The lives of other creatures are not ours to do with as we wish; they were not put on earth to provide “enrichment experiences” for us.

    Not long ago at a summer camp event I showed a young girl a teeny toad I had found. I gently handed it to her during the campfire sing-along and she proceeded to hold it in her hand, captivated by the creature, throughout the next hour. I regretted sentencing this small “insignificant” beast to its death.

    I don’t buy the “boys will be boys” sentiment about domination and cruelty. Children need to be taught – and most grasp this quickly – that animals are people too, so to speak. We teach that bears and copperheads should be respected and left alone, but apparently that’s only because they can kill or harm us. How about us being kind and respectful to ALL creatures by letting them be — which is undoubtedly what they prefer?

  46. In the spirit of Muir, here are some things that I did as a kid:
    1) shot bb gun at a nesting canadian goose just for the reaction.
    2) punched a hole through ice on a stream, poured in a bit of gas, lit it to see the ice punched up explosively for 15 yards downstream
    3) (very young) climbed up a pile of freshly cut down cottonwood trees, had the pile topple on me and nearly lost 3 fingers on my left hand
    4) treed a woodchuck (amazing if you’ve never seen one climb a tree) and knocked it down ultimately watching as my cousin’s dog killed it.
    5) stupidest thing ever did- made a wrestling ring out of poison ivy vines and suffered for 2 weeks.
    6) At 13, shot off fireworks, managed to evade capture by police by hiding in bushes and voluntarily turned myself in when my friends got caught.
    7) Ever light cottonwood seed fluffs on fire? I tell you when it is piled up, it will burn for 60 yards at about 1 foot per second without going out, just like a fuse. Amazing stuff.

    My friends and I did all manner of camping, fort constructing, large-scale capture the flag, mountain biking until the sun went down, creek source expeditions etc. I would not trade those experiences for the world. Thankfully my parents didn’t let me have a gun until I was 16. I’m sure these types of things would horrify the Orion readership. You all simply talk about your kids but you don’t want to know what they’re really doing. If you let your kids out to roam, beware the consequences…When I have kids, it will be exclusively indoor hobbies in a hermetically sealed mcmansion in the ‘burbs.

    Now I am an environmental professional. I taught myself to hunt, I burn firewood, run a community garden, canoe and bicycle for hobbies. I definitely note the connection between my childhood roaming and my current profession and pastimes. On my way to where I am today, I was a summer camp Nature instructor who wasn’t allowed to let the kids look for frogs in the creek or climb trees. I just sat in at Envirothon as a judge and not one of the kids looks like they’ve ever gotten truly lost in the woods.

    Environmentalism is going the same route as everything else in America. The age of litigation, trespassing sings, structured extracurricular time, results oriented education, and technology engrossing every aspect of life will continue to choke and stifle every bit of native and organic experience left to children. But I tell you from firsthand experience- it’s Lord of the Flies out there when your kids aren’t supervised. Minus the whole death and killing and such, which is itself an underappreciated part of Nature.

    I enjoy the comments of other readers and I enjoyed this article. Orion preaching to the choir as usual and this time I am front row in the choir.

  47. As an environmental educator with more years in the field that I care to admit, this article resonated in so many ways. The joy of discovery, getting dirty, wet and bug-bitten was part of my childhood and the connections I made then charted my course as an adult. I sometimes dispair of over-protective, germaphobic, paranoid parents and teachers straight-jacketed by an educational system that values online more than hands-on education. However, there is hope! I meet teachers who find a way to interject nature into their students’ lives and administrators who support them in spite of those who think they know better. I see parents who allow their children the freedom to be kids, to explore, build, observe, and find a sense of place in their own backyards and beyond. And I find solace in my now-teenaged children remembering the “cheeseburger” song of a black-capped chickadee we heard on a recent hike in Wisconsin.

  48. I loved this article, like other people here.
    I grew up in a big city in the 1960’s, but our backyards interconnected, and there were no fences (yet ?).
    By desire, I spent all my time outdoors. (Daytime, at least. Remember when the T.V. wasn’t running 24 hours a day.. yet ?)
    Hunting. For insects. Anything that moved and wasn’t human or machine made.
    My childhood was a greatly reduced version of Jim Corbett’s childhood, in India. HE grew up in the jungle. (Boy, do I wish I could have done that..)
    If you do not know Jim Corbett’s story(ies), you are in for a treat. India’s first ? biggest ? national park bears his name, because he was an environmentalist before the word appeared. A great hunter. A lover of nature, human, and not human.
    What David Sobel talks about on environmental education can be generalized to refer to… any form of education.
    We have very reductionist ideas about what constitutes knowledge, at this time.
    And about where knowledge can be got, too.
    And from whom.
    I believe that in our over 500 year old race to make ourselves as hybrid, and artificial as possible, we have actually come to hate and fear our natural environment.
    Our hate and fear are greatly responsible for the incredible destruction we are inflicting upon Mother Nature right now.
    On a brighter note, I particularly like the anecdote about children playing fairies.
    Our current attitudes towards nature are tied into our insistence on demystifying and rationalizing everything that moves.
    Our ancestors breathed human forms into nature. They let their imaginations… run wild from time to time.
    We are afraid of the wild…
    It is hard to say WHICH wild we are more afraid of, the fewer and fewer physical places that don’t bear our footprints or… the wild that is still there inside us, and that refuses to be exterminated at our command.
    David Sobel asks the most important questions, and makes the most perspicaceous remarks when he highlights that for people to LOVE something, they need to discover it wild, themselves.
    Not… domesticated, and prechewed for them.
    Don’t all of us need a little more wilderness in our lives right now ?

  49. I forgot one of the most important points…
    Getting… dirty.
    Our society has a very unhealthy obsession about dirt.
    Very unhealthy.

  50. My photographer friend Don Moseman spent 35 years in San Quentin Prison in Marin County. From the bars of his prison he could see Mount Tamalpais and promised himself when he got out he would climb to the top. In 1989 he did just that. And he never stopped walking, crossing America on foot three times. Last year our book “Embrace Your Inner Wild: 52 Connections for an Eco-Centric World (White Cloud Press) came out. Don and I believe passionately, that unless we connect with nature we are in danger of living what I term the “shadow wild” –the repressed side of healthy wildness that comes out in addiction, depression, and violence. As Debra rightly says, we all need more wildness–the kind that lives within and without.

  51. I fully agree that kids need unsupervised time in the wild but in my opinion this alone will unlikely bring to an environmentally sensitive adult. I grew up with some unsupervised time in the wild (maybe better call it countryside) together with other kids (a lot more unsupervised than me). We climbed trees, built forts, played in sand, mud and water and explored surroundings by foot and bikes. We also played with farm animals, lizards, snakes, birds, and all sorts of bugs. I had parents that taught me respect and curiosity towards nature and all living creatures thus observing (yes this sometime involved catching but with no physical harm) was part of the fun but not damaging or hurting. The other kids enjoyed also killing lizards, stepping on bugs and tearing down plants with parents letting them doing so. None of these free range kids have developed any sort of connection with nature. Almost all turned into hi-tech, shopping mall, consumer adults with no connection with the outdoors nor the environment. The remaining that had some sort of connection are likely illegally spearfishing the last grouper out of the local marine reserve or drive their SUV through the sand dunes to the beach for a Sunday bbq. There are only few Aldo Leopold or John Muir that came out from “bad boys” but thousands of other kids that grew in the wild have not turned into adults connected to nature because no one have made them aware of nature outside their playful personal experience. Proof of this is also the fact that the environmental mess was started by earlier generations that did have a wild unsupervised outdoor childhood. It was not started by today “digital couch potatoes” kids. Even if kids play unsupervised in the wild in our society, at the end of the day they will still return home, have access to technology, advertisement and eat super market food. Thus respect and connection needs to be somehow brought to attention and it seems to me that this needs to come from the parents or a close often present adult. The same author cites a study were it turned out that two were the fundamental aspects that contributed to foster an “environmentalist adult” among which there was the presence of an adult teaching respect. Weekend environmental education will have a tough job if the first premises are missing and can not replace them. Then the format through which it shall be delivered should be as variegate as possible as kids have different aptitudes. Personally I never run into a program where a Power Point presentation was delivered to kids! Walking around dressed as a flower would have turned me quickly down, while hearing stories about pollinators or the origin of a stone while walking in the wild would have deeply engaged me as a kid.

  52. Proportional to individual chidren and where they live, the sheer acreage of natural lands available for nature play for kids pales today compared to when John Muir and E.O. Wilson were growing up. The small natural preserves that remain near the ‘burbs really can’t handle the kind of play that involves going off trail, picking flowers, building forts, etc. When I was a kid, there was a wetland near some railroad tracks in the city of Detroit that had all kinds of life for the catching/touching/collecting and then returning. That wetland is no more and the space is now an abandoned store. I also caught bugs in my backyard including the amazing silkworm moths that now have disappeared from most suburban spaces due to pesticides, etc. Face it, people, we’ve screwed up by letting our city planners and policy makers look at every natural parcel as something to be “developed”, and encouraged/forced us to turn our backyards into toxic, lifeless, boring astroturf zones. Unless a kid has a little woods or wetland near his or her house, they’re pretty much consigned to attending the occasional nature program at the local preserve, along with thousands of other kids each year. Hopefully the nature center staff there will integrate as many hands on experiences as possible for them to develop a vital connection to nature. The natural area where I do my work as a naturalist has about 200+ acres available to explore. How do you combine running off trail and playing in the woods for thousands of kids and their families with protecting the habitat? It’s a dilemma that I’m not sure can be fixed to the satisfaction of all.

    One solution might be to send all school kids to nature camp in more extensive natural spaces for two weeks each summer for grades 4-8. It would keep them out of trouble and let them do the things that involve nature play. At this point I can’t see any urban/suburban school system, let alone many parents, open to that since their kids might get attacked by one of those scary animals on those t.v. shows. A grandparent with whom I was talking about this sort of thing the other day said his grandkids would run from a butterfly if they saw it, so disconnected are they from the natural world.

    Another possible remedy for this would be to make it possible for every single American child over the age of 10 to spend a couple weeks at a National Park every summer. Every kid. Until they are 18.

  53. Very important topic. Rachel Carson started us on it with the Sense of Wonder where she demonstrates to keep the “education” component out of the exploring, finding of wonder.
    I am very interested in early childhood “experiences”–think we should get rid of the term “early childhood education” as it is leading us to the ABC’s way too early.
    One of the best nature experiences I had with my son on a private school outing, was when we camped overnight at the Matillija Environment Resource Area in Ojai.
    Volunteers with MESA had kids sign up for a variety of walks–choose your favorite topic–you couldn’t do them all. Our leader took us past a creekside where someone asked if there were turtles. She bravely stepped into the creek and started poking in the reeds in the bank to see if she could stir one up. She stated her philosophy–“it’s ok to look for them–don’t be afraid.”
    Other best hikes also had surprise elements, like a forester waiting at a certain area and stepping out from behind a tree to do a little demonstration of tree rings and how old is that tree. Or another one where a volunteer was waiting on a hillside with a display of native american acorn preparation items. Kids love to crack acorns and will do it for hours!
    I’d like to start or be part of an outdoor experience early childhood learning group here in our foothill town in California where kids are going to Kindergarten too early and the first grade curriculum is too academically based to raise holistic, emotionally balanced chldren.

  54. I have enjoyed reading through ALL the comments on this very important article (to me), and keep coming back to it.
    A few perhaps insignificant ? observations…
    I notice that we have a habit ? of eliminating any form of difference between boys’ and girls’ behavior in engaging with nature.
    We systematically refer to “kids”, as though the sexes SHOULD NOT, and DO NOT behave differently. (That does not mean that each boy and each girl is not a unique individual…)
    I am not sure that observation will bear this ideological PREJUDICE out.

    Where I am currently living, I am watching the last (relatively) wild, unconstructed places in my local suburb get eaten up by cultural projects of some sorts. Even… an “ecological” industrial site…Needless to say, this well meaning encroachment tears me apart.
    “The wild” is important for us, as a species. It is necessary in order to give meaning to the word.. “civilization”. Is there “civilization” without our sense of the wild ?
    I think… not.
    At a time when we are busy (the root of the word “business”, busy…) getting our financial hands on every last part and parcel of the natural world, “the wild” is under assault.
    One last thought… we are NOT nice animals.
    Is it appropriate to talk about a NICE animal ?
    We have a globally destructive and intolerant attitude toward the aggressive impulses that enable us to even defend ourselves.
    If we don’t learn to deal with our own natural.. aggressivity, will we ever be able to defend ourselves in the natural OR SOCIAL world ?
    I think.. not.

  55. While reading this something disturbed me, then the comments got to me even more. Three points have stuck with me while trying to sort out why.
    The first is the idea that our development and understanding is more vital than, and sometimes comes at a high cost to where we are and what surrounds us. That’s evident all around us and thankfully we’ve seen some of that before too many of us emulated Audubon. Before any child is turned loose let’s hope someone has instilled in them the sentiment expressed by Bill Moyers- Look beyond your own prerogative. And we as adults should remember that as well.
    The second thorn to all this has been the persistent rejoinder, “When I was a kid…” Reading it from a 25-year-old (and hearing it from many teenagers) makes it clear things are only going to get worse as every succeeding generation is faltering a little more due to less exposure to unstructured environment and time.
    And why is everyone so convinced being turned loose outside assures respect for nature and a lifetime of efforts to restore and protect it? Some kids who grew up roaming the hills of West Virginia from the time they could walk are now blasting the tops off those same mountains. The poachers in “my” woods weren’t playing video games while I explored the creek. And I know there are many people who have done far more than me in the conservation movement who grew up bookworms and went outside only under duress, or in an inner-city and never explored a forest or stream.

  56. An excellent article which says in detail what we at the UK National Association for Environmental Education believe in:
    experience it,(the natural world)
    enjoy it,
    own it,(in your mind)
    save it!

    Four steps to genuine conservation.

  57. Thank you for this article. I try to take my “city kids” out to nature as much as possible, hoping that they would feel any connection with nature as they get older and become aware of the challanges our planet is facing. also, I think its an important part of my educational duties.

  58. Very nice article on the value of nature in facilitating value towards nature…and also interesting to read the myriad comments which have followed the piece that David Sobel has written. For me there’s nothing more pleasurable and significant than another voice talking about the vital role that exposure to nature plays in promoting favorable environmental values/attitudes/behavior in adulthood. And I really wish it was that simplistic! This unfortunately, is not the case. It is undeniable that there’s a remarkable similarity in the childhoods of many of the present-day environmentalists, but it must not be taken as “the most valid route to producing environmentalists”! As some of the comments clearly indicate, many folks who had a lot of first-hand, unstructured contact with nature didn’t turn out to be what we would otherwise predict based on this article. And the reason I think is that human-nature relationship is rather too complex and using a reductionist method to simplify it to the focus of this article does not serve the purpose, I’m afraid. If I were to trace my own journey in nature conservation (which thankfully I did as part of preparation for a talk last month!), the contact with nature exactly as described by the author would probably feature first as an important ingredient. But, that alone wouldn’t do it as I saw many of my other childhood wilderness companions go in directions not favoring, if not going against nature conservation. And it is this aspect which has intrigued me for years – can we pin down that one single factor which triggers positive relationship between humans and nature? Though I too feel it is direct and unhindered contact with nature in early childhood, I am unable to be too emphatic about it – partly thanks to the uncannily manipulative human minds that make us what we are and lack of a clear evidence that ‘this alone’ does it! And this is after I have observed (and to some extent followed) many children for years who have attended my nature education camps. Again coming back to my personal journey, an environment (largely natural but suburban area) which promoted this contact for two decades from my childhood, presence of peers who led and guided me in early years, and existence of organizations (the Ahmedabad Zoo, a Snake park – Sundarvan and nature camps conducted by the World Wildlife Fund to name a few) promoting nature discovery and conservation helped tremendously. Besides, parents who were indifferent/passive to my outdoor pursuits, mentors who channeled my interest through some organised activities and encouraged me to volunteer and later choose wildlife research/nature education-interpretation as career and availability of such avenues – all contributed to some extent, at different times. In countries where poverty is widespread and places for an unadulterated contact with nature are hugely limited; your family background/values, socio-economic status and dominant/prevalent views on ‘good jobs’ also play critical roles in determining one’s journey. As you and I face the day-to-day challenges of changing lifestyles, politics of conservation and the impact of scales at which things operate in the ‘global village’ -earth; many of our experiences with nature don’t come to any rescue! Finally, I’m really appalled at the article not mentioning the pioneering efforts and successes of Seve Van Matre and the Institute of Earth Education…who have been championing this approach in a truly remarkable and unique way through sequential and cumulative experiences in nature that begin with a better sensory perception of nature and grow to a better perception of the self and the relationship of this self with other-selves. Finally, just like there’s no ideal way to do environmental education; there’s no ideal way to do conservation either!! Nature Conservation is not a social enterprise, but a way of life…where you live among and as a-part-of the community of life that nurtures you and myriads of other life forms that compete, co-operate and sustain the very processes that support them! It is rather a spiritual movement – one in which one’s heart and mind grow, unfold and embrace non-human life and processes of nature as manifestation of the same reality to which we belong. I look forward to some in-depth response/discussion from the author and of course other readers whose comments I’ve been reading with interest and joy!

  59. Great article. Concerning climbing trees: my daughter attended a Montesorri (I know this spelling is a bit off, sorry) school where the rule for climbing was whether the branch you grabbed was at least as thick as your wrist. And the kids all got it, followed the rule (mostly) and climbed trees and had a great time. She was five years old.
    It does not hurt children to understand that things can be dangerous but I believe they do best with sensible advice that helps them explore.
    Some of these safety Nazis need to understand that a sedentary life is innately dangerous.
    I am going to go off on a tangent here, since I used to use a woodstove in my back to the land days. Never heard of a family burning up in a woodstove fire. Then when I moved back to my hometown, Chicago, it seemed like fatal fires were all too common. Was this due to the larger number of households? Or was it that when people have to deal with risky circumstances in an active way they make good decisions?

  60. This topic has been discussed among professional environmental educators and interpretive naturalists for 15 years. While many nature centers have not gotten the message, quite a few have. I’m surprised that David Sobel’s seminal work, “Beyond Ecophobia: Reclaiming the Heart in Nature Education” (1996) is not mentioned. Sobel’s thesis should be the foundation of this entire discussion. Another foundational work is “The Geography of Childhood: Why Children Need Wild Places” by Gary Paul Nabhan and Stephen Trimble.

  61. Great article David! Very amusing, and I found myself nodding through the whole thing. I am an environemtal educator and have been for about 10 years now. But I came to EE after having been trained as a teacher. It occured to me as I read your article that in my experience, many of the Environmental Educators out there have not had any training in how to be with kids/how kids learn, i.e. developmentally appropriate practice, consturctivist theory, etc… Come to think of it, never once in my EE certification training did I come across a class that addressed these issues.

    Later, as a parent, I experienced the same kind of excrutiatingly dull “young naturalist” program that you describe at our local arboretum. Now this arboretum is world class, and we are proud members. But the classes for young children are pretty darn awful. The educators choose inappropriate books (TOO long, too much info) and crafts (that parents usually make)–all in an effort to make SURE that the little darlings get the information that they (the educators) want to impart. Its all an exercise in skill and drill really.

    I, too, will go back to our guru, Rachel Carson, because I believe she said it best when she wrote: I sincerely believe that for the child, and for the parent seeking to guide them, it is not half so important to know as to feel…the emotions and impressions are the fertile soil..and the years of childhood are the time to prepare the soil. It is more important to pave the way for the child to want to know than to put him on a diet of facts he is not ready to assimilate.” And that is just it! young children are just not developmentally in “fact seeking mode.” They are explorers, creators, experimentors–this is how they learn.

    Thanks again David for your thought-provoking article!

  62. Wow, what a great article! I couldn’t have said it better myself. I am one of those that grew up having plenty of “wild nature” adventures. My brother’s and I were always building forts. Frankly, I never looked at my experiences this way before.

    Wish I had read something like this while my children were younger. They had some experiences but nothing like what my husband and I experienced growing up.

    But – I will keep this notion of “untutored savage” in mind as I continue my journey as an informal educator. Thanks for these wonderful insights!!

  63. I was lucky enough to raise my kids in the forest. Every once in awhile I still come upon one of their forts in the woods. Your article stirred many fond memories. It also made me think about the importance of adults accessing their wild self too. I’m often troubled by the signs in our state and national parks. If there has to be a sign there as I gaze out over some awesome scenery, let it be a poem that inspires my soul, instead of a scientific explanation of what I am looking at. Not that the science isn’t interesting, but I would like to be met in my heart first and then my mind. Thank you so much for this article.

  64. I grew up outside Philadelphia and spent my childhood outdoors unsupervised. Often a group of us would spend all day hiking in a forest 5 miles from town, which we walked to. We took a lot of risks while exploring and came home mostly unscathed.

    My father and I spent endless hours hiking these woods when I was little. When he was a teenager he trapped in those woods, getting up in the dark to ride his bike to the traps, kill what he caught and bring it home before school. After school he skinned the animals, threw the guts in the heater, hung the fur to dry, did chores, and went out to set new traps.

    My father is an avid naturalist who taught me deep values of respecting nature. Go figure that concept in today’s environmental paradigm.

    With my Dad I made a butterfly collection, collected and watched stream bugs swim on slides under his microscope, fished for trout and accompanied him hunting and skied.

    I never went to an organized environmental education program. When I was 14 I chose a career that would enable me to preserve what I loved….nature.

    I am an environmental scientist and educator. The BEST environmental education programs I have worked in allow free expression/exploration of nature. My supervisors at the times were not in agreement with that protocol, but I know from experience how that freedom shaped my passion and I see that passion in my students when they are allowed to dig, hike, jump and take risks.

    Today I teach educators how to develop and use outdoor classrooms so children get to learn in a place most rarely see or touch.

    David Sobel’s article is refreshing.

  65. As a camp owner, I’ve had staff who didn’t allow the tadpoles and other creatures to be captured for a day or for an just an hour. In a nice way I’ve always put the kaboosh on that. There’s nothing like capturing our camp’s lake resident snapping turtle so children can first hand see that it’s not the monster they think it is and yes to teach respect for and understanding of this water based creature. I loved this article and it’s “whole” approach to learning in the outdoors. Free play in the outdoors should be fun and informative. It should raise the questions that only children would think to ask and wonder. Depending on the environment, the age of the children, and the staff that lead, it should always be hands on, noses down and ears perked to discover the vast world that we crisscross every single day. Power to the little people who still have their inquisitive desires to get in there and mix it up with all the bugs, bark and beasts. Let us all learn from them and this wonderful piece of writing.

  66. There is always a balancing act with outdoor education. However, there has to be some hands-on fun or the kids will not come back. That’s what it’s all about. I hope that kids always want to come back to my programs and I hope they will tell me if I’m getting too restrictive.

  67. I could not agree more with David and many of the commenters. I grew up outside of Philadelphia and I attribute my career with The Nature Conservancy and with NatureServe to the years of unsupervised play and collecting of frogs and snakes as pets, old nests, etc in grade school in relatively undeveloped woods, fields, and wetlands near our home. Later in middle and high school years I became a more serious naturalist and watched as the woods near our home were lost to development. Were it not for these experiences I would not have followed the career path that I did and found myself forever rejoicing when out in nature and working hard to preserve what is left for its own sake.

  68. I teach ecology to high school kids, and could not agree more with what David Sobel is addressing. What I see is that so many 16 and 17 year olds never got the chance to be wild and untamed, that when I provide opportunities for these experiences – making snow angels at night or bum sliding down forest slopes or off-trail wild person downhill snowshoeing, the kids are so energized and stoked to let their wild person out – that the so called “learning” (formal science education) comes so much more naturally. City kids, who didn’t think they wanted to go into deep snow and explore ecology suddenly want to have outdoor careers.

  69. Thank you, Orion, for publishing this great article, and thank you, David, for writing it. I also enjoyed Bruce Gellerman’s interview of David on the Living on Earth radio program, which several commenters referred to.

    Here’s an excerpt of that interview I particularly liked:

    “SOBEL: Take the kid kayaking. Take the kid berry-picking.

    GELLERMAN: Well, because a lot of parents – you say ‘berry-picking’ and they’ll say ‘oh my gosh, they’ll pick something poisonous!’ I know I take my kid mushrooming and I tell other parents and they look at me like ‘Oh my God, should we call the police on this guy?’

    SOBEL: Exactly. It’s fascinating how shocked and disapproving other parents are about, you know, that kind of behavior. And in fact, there is interesting research that’s emerged that, you know, where you look at the relationship between childhood experiences and adult environmental values. And one of the things in childhood that seems to shape environmental behaviors in adulthood is parents taking their kids mushroom picking and berry picking: selecting a natural resource for consumption seems to be something that leads to environmental behavior in adulthood.”

    I know that childhood berry-picking and nut-gathering had a profound and positive impact on my life, and is one of the reasons I teach people (adults, parents and children) how to connect to nature by nibbling on it (see http://users.rcn.com/eatwild/sched.htm). In my foraging book, “Wild Plants I Have Known…and Eaten” (which was reviewed in Orion Magazine), I share a similar observation to Sobel’s: what I call the “velvet rope” approach to the outdoors: that people treat nature as if it were an art museum, and aren’t allowed to touch (never mind collect and eat) anything. While I understand the well-meaning sentiment behind this philosophy, I think it erects a counterproductive barrier between humans and the natural world.

    Thanks again for this article.

  70. Thanks to our awesome lawn care company, our kids are a lot safer in our yard and surrounding areas! No more worries about bugs/fleas/ticks or any of that fun stuff!

  71. Thank you so much for this article. I thought my son would adore the local nature day camp nearby (so very popular) and I was puzzled that he didn’t want to return the next year: it was all “look but don’t touch.” I started feeling like our own excursions to the woods to find frogs/salamanders/fairy shrimp/turtles and bugs was somehow taboo. I have been searching for a program like the wildreness youth project in your article nearby that will celebrate his curiosity & interest in the natural world.

  72. And when you can get to the wide open spaces, it’s all private land, fenced and gaily festooned with “No Trespassing” signs.

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