Why Give the Gift of the Outdoors
We must take our children seriously enough to preserve their natural childhood.
David W. Orr
There are gifts for our children in the outdoors. Gifts we can help our children receive. All we have to do is allow children the time and place to go outdoors. Combine that with the freedom to explore, some guidance from adults and wonderful things will happen. When one reads the memoirs, autobiographies, and biographies of naturalists and scientists, they almost all speak of time spent outdoors in direct contact with plants and animals as a key event in the development of their passion. They speak about exploring on their own and being guided by a significant adult in their lives. Their inspiration was not something that came from school, it happened outdoors. There is no guarantee that every child will become a scientist, but every child can enjoy the benefits of a wonder-filled outdoor life.
In her book, A Sense of Wonder, Rachel Carson writes, “If I had influence with the good fairy who is supposed to preside over the christening of all children I should ask that her gift to each child in the world be a sense of wonder to so indestructible that it would last throughout life, as an unfailing antidote against the boredom and disenchantments of later years.” A sense of wonder is one of life’s greatest gifts to children. In a world where children are growing up too fast, this gift is often lost. We can help to make Rachel Carson’s wish come true.
Just as the interrelationships of a food web connect animals and plants together, a sense of wonder, through its many gifts connects children to the place in which they live.
Wonder is the first step to knowledge. By asking questions and being curious children are motivated to learn. They begin to have a knowledge of the animals, plants, soil, water, air and other parts of the place in which they live. They begin to understand how the world works and with that comes the understanding of how to make better ecological decisions as they grow up. This knowledge leads to feelings of empathy for the life that surrounds them. With empathy comes responsibility and care that restores a community and all its inhabitants.
In the outdoors, children learn the interconnectedness of the world. They learn first hand that everything matters. They matter. There is hope and power in knowing that what you do matters and can make a difference. Knowing this is a gift.
Wonder teaches children awe. Awe is a good thing. The knowledge children gain only goes so far. It is a wonderfully mysterious world. We don’t know everything; we can’t know everything. It is a humbling lesson and an important lesson. The outdoors is a powerful reminder that we are not the center of it all. What we are is part of something, part of someplace.
Wonder leads to challenge. Can I climb that mountain? Can I catch that lizard? Can I sit here long enough and quiet enough to watch that toad catch something to eat? With challenges come new abilities and skills. Children realize the rewards of effort and challenge. With successes, failures, and lessons learned, a sense of hope is born from accepting challenges.
All the gifts combine to become part of a growing sense of place. With a strong sense of place, children feel connected and part of the place they live, part of their community. They know the stories of the natural and human history from the past and in the present. By knowing the stories children become part of the story in the present and for the future.
What is happening to all these wonder filled gifts? Why aren’t children able to hold on to them? Chances are you spent more time playing outside as a child then children today. In the past, transmission of knowledge about the natural world was passed down from adults to children through stories, walks in the woods, and by working on the land. There was direct contact.
Today things are different. Now the school is the main source of information, but unfortunately, environmental education is a low priority in most schools. With more and more standardized testing, environmental education is not seen as a way to help meet the standards. Instead, most teachers and administrators view environmental education as an extra activity.
Besides the occasional outdoor field trip, when environmental education is taught children learn from computers, books, and television instead of going outdoors. Much too often the focus is on faraway places and environmental problems. Too often children are taught that there are only problems in nature, there is a hole in the ozone layer, the polar ice cap is melting, or animals are going extinct. To borrow a phrase from David Sobel, children develop “ecophobia”-a fear of ecological problems and the natural world. This is no way for children to fall in love with the earth.
Another problem is time. Today’s child has much less unstructured free time. After school, there is homework, swim class, ballet class, karate class, etc...Children don’t have the opportunity to come home, throw their books down and run outside to play. According to a University of Michigan study, over the past twenty years, the time children have spent playing has declined 25%. The time children have spent in unstructured outdoor activities has gone down 50%. Time spent on structured sports and passive leisure time have all increased. Family time is cut back as parents work long hours to keep their standard of living in the same place or to achieve a material level that parents think they should have.
The time families spend together has also declined a great deal. In his book Childhood’s Future, Richard Louv notes that in 1965 the average parent had roughly 30 hours of contact with his or her children each week. Today, the average parent has just seventeen hours with their children a week.” Whether it is family dinners, family vacations or simply household conversations, time spent on these activities has declined. Between 1976 and 1997, according to a Roper Poll of families with children aged eight to seventeen, vacationing together fell from 53% to 38%,” just sitting and talking” 53% to 43%. There are plenty more statistics, but the point is made simply by examining the lives we lead and those of our neighbors.
When children do have a free time, the computer and television have become more attractive alternatives. Television steals time from all of us, especially children. Children lose by missing what they could be doing without television, and they lose by what they learn from television. Television sends the wrong message about materialism, sex, violence and more. Television teaches children there are no limits to what can be used, and there are quick fixes to most problems. Even nature shows are often unrealistic with the focus only on spectacular wildlife, in spectacular places, doing spectacular things. The lesson that we are all nature, and that nature surrounds us is not taught.
Fear prevents many parents from giving children the freedom to explore the neighborhood and small wild places. We need to curb our fears and keep things in perspective. Compare your childhood to today do you think you grant more, less or the same freedom? Why? Is there truly a problem? There are things to worry about and the world is obviously not 100% safe, but there are also problems with being over cautious. It is easy to worry about fears that should not be fears. For example, according to criminal justice experts, a total of 200-300 children a year are abducted by non-family members and kept for long periods of time or murdered. Another 4,600 of America’s 64 million children (that is .001% of the children in the United States) are seized by non-family members and later returned. Instead, there is a great deal of fear-mongering used to make money and gain fame and attention in the media. The media are quick to play on these fears for higher ratings. As more and more parents spend less and less time with their own children, they worry more and more. These fears help to keep children from having the freedom and time to explore on their own.
The lack of wild places is also a major problem. Loss of small wild areas is devastating for two reasons. Children are losing the places they can explore on their own. These places are not “kid-proof” as Robert Michael Pyle would say. Children need places where they can build forts, play hide and seek, catch animals, and use imaginations; places where they can discover the natural world and themselves. Now, these empty lots, mini-forests, dead ends, and unkempt areas of city parks are being turned into new homes, shopping malls or roads. These places are invaluable in their importance to a child’s development.
The other problem associated with the loss of these small wild places is the tremendous impact on local wildlife. The destruction of all these small places adds up to more habitat lost than might be noticed due to the cumulative effect. While usually, these aren't animals in danger of complete extinction, they can become locally extinct by the loss of habitat. Children are losing the chance to see an opossum track, watch a raccoon or hear a screech owl. Children are threatened by the “extinction of experience.” Those magical moments with wildlife make a huge difference.
Children are not the only ones that suffer when generations grow up disconnected to the places they live. They will grow into adults less able to make the thoughtful decisions regarding our environment. They will not feel as connected to their communities, which translates into less community involvement. Robert Putnam describes this phenomenon in his book Bowling Alone. Over the past fifty years, fewer and fewer people join community organizations, civic organizations or even socialize outside their homes.
We want our children to feel part of a family. To make that happen we simply spend time with newborns and toddlers playing and letting them explore the world. Now as our children grow into preschoolers, kindergarteners, first graders and on and on it is time for them to bond with their community. The best way for that to happen is still the same: playing and exploring in their expanding world both on their own and with adult guidance.
These are three ideas to keep in mind that will help you give the gift of the outdoors to your child:
1. Amazing things happen in small wild places. One of the essential things to learn is that nature is not some separate place; it's all around us. The smallest patch of woods, an empty lot, a city park and most importantly a backyard are all nature. Don’t let the media images of what nature should be spoil your view. Any green space can be the home to amazing animals and the setting for powerful opportunities for play.
2. Another misconception is the idea that only spectacular wildlife is necessary for children to become interested in nature. Lions tigers and bears are interesting but so are caterpillars, worms, salamanders, and frogs. Children are fascinated by insects, amphibians, and the like. They can see these creatures, catch these creatures, hold and interact directly with these creatures. This is the way children learn first hand that they share the planet with other life. Don’t hold them back with your expectations of what is an interesting animal. As Barbara Kingsglover wrote, “My parents gave me the gift of making mountains out of nature’s molehills.”
3. We can make the time, even if it means making less money, having a messier house, saying no at work, turning the television off, or limiting after-school activities. Whether you are Jewish or not, try the concept of the Sabbath. It can be an island in time that allows you and your family to be together or designate another time each week to stop and enjoy. Make family outings a priority and a ritual. You don’t want to find yourself listening to Harry Chapin’s song, “Cat’s Cradle” and realizing the song is all about you. When you drop your son or daughter off at college would you ever say to yourself, “I spent too much time with my children.”