Today’s children are growing up without many of the nature-derived benefits I experienced as a child. One of the most important aspects of my childhood was the freedom I had to roam our neighborhood on the shores of Puget Sound for hours on end without parental supervision. My friends and I embarked on fishing voyages in leaky boats, waded streams, sustained the pain of stinging nettles and blackberry vines, pedaled our bikes miles away from home and climbed trees with abandon. We discovered on our own the strangeness of sea pens and gumboot chitons, the fierceness of robins defending their eggs and nests, and the mystery buried in mountain beaver burrows beneath rotten logs. All wondrous, exciting and most importantly, our own secret world.
These childhood discoveries and experiences left me with a life-long sense of adventure and discovery, a never-ending fascination with nature that very much shaped my career path and my avocation. I find myself frequently wondering what opportunities the children of today have to go adventuring in nature on their own, or with limited parental supervision. Our newspapers are full of headlines about the dangers awaiting our children around every corner, lurking on the internet and in the hallways of their own schools. There is a growing sense that our children must be constantly monitored, tied to cell phones or pagers in order for us to keep them safe. Our world is losing something important, something critical to our very survival: our sense of place in the world of nature. We ARE part of nature, and yet it is so easy to forget this elemental fact when bombarded with all things electronic and wonderful, all day long.
There is too much fear in our society today, almost all of it misplaced. In fact, here in North America, our world has never been more safe. Children are safer, less fearful and healthier if they are encouraged to develop their own awareness of their natural surroundings. Western Wildlife Outreach spends a lot of time and effort taking our message of how to coexist with carnivores to public events of all sizes. Over and over again, we hear from parents and families who are fearful to take their children out in the woods. Won’t they get eaten by a bear, a cougar, or a wolf? We explain the almost non-existent risk of any such thing happening, and teach them about the true behavior of our large carnivores. That is, they are very fearful and wary of humans, they go out of their way to avoid human contact, and the chances of even catching a glimpse of these animals outside of parks such as Yellowstone are very small. We also teach them a few simple things to do should they ever have a close encounter with a large carnivore: look big, back away slowly, talk to the animal calmly and carry bear spray that is readily accessible. Stow food and garbage away from sleeping areas when you camp. We have found that some simple information like this can often give a family the confidence and knowledge they need in order to believe they will be safe from carnivore attacks when they recreate outside.
Children need nature, adults need nature. It is part of our nature as humans to take part in the natural world, to study and explore, to marvel and appreciate, to be humbled by the fact there are things in this world bigger than we are, and that we are not always in control. Let your children and grandchildren play outside, take them outside and let them explore on their own. Let them learn self-reliance and to respect nature. They will be much richer and wiser for it.
For more information on this important subject, I recommend reading Last Child in the Woods by Richard Louv.