Growing Up Without Nature 5 Feb 2014

Living at the edge of town on 20 acres of forested land we have often been asked if we aren’t scared “…to live out there so far from town, with all those wild animals, snakes, and stuff?” Well, all those “wild animals” are the least of our fears. Wild and weird people – well that’s any entirely different question! What I want to know is why my friends aren’t scared to death living in town surrounded by so many strange and dangerous folks.

Concerns like these are indicative of a deep and, I believe, serious problem with today’s society. We simply have little or no experience in the outdoors. When I was a kid, back in the days of dinosaurs, most of my waking hours were spent outside. Roaming and rambling through vacant lots, following trails into the woods, finding animal tracks, watching clouds form castles in the sky, and gazing awe-struck at the star-studded night sky filled my life. Nowadays kids rarely do those things. Parents and teachers today are simply freaked out at the very idea of kids making spontaneous treks into the great outdoors. They might get chiggers, or worse. Moms and Dads think it’s too dangerous, and teachers – bless ‘em – think blood is blue, and there is way too much legal liability involved to allow Jane or Johnny to go on field trips. They might trip and scrape their knee and get a deadly MRSA infection. Or, they’ll get poison ivy and transmit it to the entire student body, faculty and staff. (Poison ivy, by the way, is neither contagious nor infectious and can’t be spread from person to person from the rash, oozing or not!)

The sad truth is that our children are growing up knowing practically nothing about nature. They don’t climb trees because they might fall out. They’ve never sat by a campfire roasting marshmallows and making S’Mores. They might burn themselves. They’ve never whittled a piece of wood with their very own pocketknife because the school bans such dangerous weapons, and besides they might cut themselves.

Have your kids been on a hike outdoors – ever? Have you sat with them and watched the sun set over a beautiful lake? Have you laid on your back and watched the stars, or seen distant heat lightning, or heard the hoot of a great-horned owl? Do you let your children play in the fields and forests? Or are they always cooped up in the artificial, temperature and humidity controlled environmental chamber you call home with their eyes glued to a glowing boob tube, computer screen, or idiotic video game?

What we don’t experience, we certainly don’t understand and definitely will never treasure. No wonder that our cities do little or nothing to preserve dark starry skies. No wonder that our forests are disappearing and the very future of municipal, state and national parks are in jeopardy. At the rate we’re going, Yellowstone National Park may one day be reduced to a blacktop parking lot surrounding a 50-foot by 50-foot fenced Old Faithful geyser.

Richard Louv wrote a book that ought to be on the required reading list of every parent and educator in this country. It’s called Last Child in The Woods – Saving Our Children from Nature-Deficit Disorder. He reiterates what I have preached for many years; people need nature in order to maintain their sense of adventure, curiosity, mental growth, and balance. Experiences in the outdoors can help stabilize us, reduce our stress, anxiety and depression, increase our sensitivity and awareness, and even salvage our sanity. Louv agrees with me when he says our kids are growing up warped because of their lack of experience in nature.

John Muir, the founder of the Sierra Club said many years ago, that we ought to go to the mountains and “get their glad tidings.” He suggested that if we did, our cares would fall from us “like autumn leaves.” We would be renewed and rejuvenated. Lacking easy access to mountains, just go outdoors and take your kids with you. It’s okay if they chase butterflies and collect caterpillars, even though some of the latter can sting. It’s okay if they get dirty and scraped up. Let them gum up their hands and clothes with pine pitch, and catch crawdads with bacon rinds. Let ‘em be kids, for crying out loud. Relax a little. Let ‘em out into the fields and forests. And maybe, just maybe, you adults ought to go out once in awhile, too. Then, perhaps there is a chance that we’ll get a whole new generation back on track so they can understand that intangibles like the sky, the wind, the flowers, bird songs, sunsets, and clouds are critical to a balanced, satisfying, and stress-free life. Give it a try.

Dr. Risk is a professor emeritus in the College of Forestry and Agriculture at Stephen F. Austin State University in Nacogdoches, Texas. Content © Paul H. Risk, Ph.D. All rights reserved, except where otherwise noted. Click to send questions, comments, or request permission for use.