Clearing a Path to Nature
The disengagement of children from nature has begun to alarm some of America’s more thoughtful naturalists, scientists, and environmentalists.Posted May 28, 2009
If children’s direct experience of nature is vanishing, where are future environmentalists going to come from? In 1978, Thomas Tanner, professor of environmental studies at Iowa State University, conducted a study of environmentalists’ formative influences—what it was in their lives that had steered them to environmental activism. He polled staff members and chapter officers of major environmental organizations.
“Far and away the most frequently cited influence was childhood experience of natural, rural, or other relatively pristine habitats,” according to Tanner. Most enjoyed unstructured play and discovery in such settings almost every day during childhood. “Several studies since mine have supported my findings,” he says. “But for some reason, you don’t hear many environmentalists expressing much concern about the intimacy factor between kids and nature.”
One naturalist who has given this issue some thought is Robert Stebbins, professor emeritus at the Museum of Vertebrate Zoology at the University of California, Berkeley. For more than 20 years, Stebbins’ book, A Field Guide to Western Reptiles and Amphibians, which he wrote and illustrated, has remained the undisputed bible of herpetology, inspiring countless youngsters to chase snakes.
“We’ve got to teach children and young people that we’re related to every living thing,” Stebbins told me. As we spoke, he dropped scores of slides into an old viewer. “Look,” Stebbins said, “Ten years of before-and-after photos.”
Taken by Stebbins and his students in the California desert over a period of 10 years, the slides document the destruction caused by all-terrain vehicles (ATVs):grooves and slashes, tracks that will remain for centuries. Desert crust ripped up by rubber treads, great clouds of dirt rising high into the atmosphere; a gunshot desert tortoise, with a single tire track cracking its back. Stebbins discovered that 90 percent of invertebrate animal life—insects, spiders and other arthropods—had been destroyed in the ATV-scarred desert areas.
Looking at Stebbins’ slides, I wondered whether this destructiveness was simply the inevitable product of population growth in a fragile area, or whether our culture is producing a succession of generations with depreciating regard for the environment.
“One time, I was out watching the ATVs. I saw these two little boys trudging up a dune. I went running after them. I wanted to ask them why they weren’t riding machines—maybe they were looking for something else out there,” said Stebbins. “They said their trail bikes were broken. I asked them if they knew what was out there in the desert, if they’d seen any lizards. ‘Yeah,’ one of them said, ‘But lizards just run away.’ These kids were bored, uninterested. If only they knew.”
So how do we help them know?
For the past decade, Robert F. Kennedy Jr., an environmental lawyer and son of the late senator, has helped an organization called Riverkeeper bring back the Hudson River from its polluted, watery grave. He likes to take his children scuba diving in the Hudson. He “buddy dives” with them, which is a method to teach correct underwater breathing.
With a single oxygen tank, he and a child will descend to the bottom of the river and sit next to a large rock, sheltered from the current. He holds the child around the shoulders or waist (protectively, but also to feel the child’s breathing) and the two of them pass the mouthpiece back and forth. They sit down there, among the dancing plants, and watch the fish go by: the aggressive bass and whiskered catfish, and even an occasional sturgeon, monstrous, prehistoric, and graceful.
Kennedy told me of his earliest experiences as the family’s “nature child,” as he called himself, and how those experiences shaped his fathering.
“I spent every afternoon in the woods when I was growing up in Virginia,” he said. “I loved finding mud puppies, salamanders, crayfish, frogs. From the time I was 6 years old, my room was filled with aquariums. And it still is today. I have a 350-gallon tank and I have aquariums all over my house.” Catfish, eel, bullheads, striped bass, largemouth bass, blue fish, perch, sturgeon and trout. He and his kids catch them in the Hudson, bring them home alive, and keep them in the aquariums for a few days—then release them.
Practical Things You Can Do
Most children are good at introducing themselves to nature; they just need a little encouragement. The garden spider, the ant highway, the bluegill taking a worm—these are all doorways into that other world, the one outside the Nintendo universe. As parents, we can help open those doors. Particularly in urban areas, exposure to nature doesn’t come naturally. We need to bring nature to our kids. We can:
- Join nature organizations, and encourage them to pay attention to kids. The National Audubon Society, the National Wildlife Federation, the Nature Conservancy, the Sierra Club or other organizations are beginning to address the breach between kids and nature. Most have monthly publications with spectacular natural photography; some have special memberships and magazines for kids.
- Take a nature break. Take children for a walk in the woods. If there isn’t one nearby, visit a local zoo. Look for insects under leaves and birds in the trees. Get dirty. Play in the mud. Stand in the rain until your clothing is soaked. Show kids how good nature can feel.
- Go camping, boating, hiking. “When we go camping, I try to tap a vein of mystery I remember when I was a child,” says John Johns, a Los Angeles businessman. “I get them up before dawn so we can see the coyotes. We hike under the moon, no flashlights. On camping trips, if the parents have a good time, the kids will have a good time. They’ll connect with nature.”
- Take nature vacations. Families that don’t enjoy camping can still vacation in natural settings by renting a mountain or beach cabin for a few days. Ski trips give kids a chance to roll in the snow. Dude ranches give family members a chance to ride horses, sleep under the stars, and pretend they are cowboys and cowgirls.
- Encourage schools to incorporate nature into the curriculum. Some schools adopt nearby canyons, fields or woods and, as part of biology class, clean up the trash, remove the non-native plants, and study the animal life. These programs help kids experience nature up close, and improve science education by making it personal and hands-on.
- Conduct family or school nature treasure hunts and nighttime explorations. Anne Lambert, mother of three and former high school teacher, quotes Rachel Carson: “It is not half so important to know as to feel” when introducing a young child to the natural world.
Remembering the Value of Dreamtime
Most of all, we need to give our kids some dreamtime—and recognize the connection between nature, emotional health, and creativity. Many of our most gifted thinkers and creators were touched, as children, by the magic of nature.
Samuel Langhorne Clemens held down an adult job at the age of 14, but when his working day ended at three in the afternoon, he headed to the river to swim or fish or navigate a “borrowed” boat. There he dreamed of becoming a pirate or a trapper scout and became Mark Twain. The poet T. S. Eliot, who grew up next to the Mississippi River, wrote, “I feel that there is something in having passed one’s childhood besides the big river which is incommunicable to those who have not.”
The art critic Bernard Berenson recalled:
“As I look back on fully 70 years of awareness and recall the moments of greatest happiness, they were for the most part, moments when I lost myself all but completely in some instant of perfect harmony. In childhood and boyhood this ecstasy overtook me when I was happy out of doors?”
Creativity begins, he theorized, “with the natural genius of childhood and the ‘spirit of place.’” Today, most children are probably hard-pressed to induce this spirit of place while stuck in a traffic jam on their way to soccer practice, or trapped inside a house because of the fear of crime, or fixated on achieving the next level of Mortal Kombat.
My sons often remind me that there is much that is good about today’s childhood. But still I wonder: Am I doing enough to pass on to them a sense of natural wonder? Am I listening? Surely my 10-year old Matthew, who enjoys Nintendo as much as the next kid, is sending me a clear message: He says he wants to do a lot more fishing this year.
That, he says, is what he needs.
Richard Louv is the author of several books about children and community, including, The Web of Life: Weaving the Values that Sustain Us (Conari Press), Fly-Fishing for Sharks: An American Journey (Simon & Schuster), and the national bestseller Last Child in the Woods.