A few years ago, I read a book called Last Child in the Woods: Saving Our Children from Nature Deficit Disorder by Richard Louv. The author links the absence of nature in the lives of today’s children to some of the most disturbing childhood trends: the rise in obesity, attention disorders, and depression. This book brings together research indicating that direct exposure to nature is essential for healthy childhood development and for the physical and emotional health of children and adults.
In the few years since it was published, Last Child in the Woods has generated a national conversation about children and nature, and has started a mini-movement of parents, educators, and legislators who are trying to connect children with nature.
Recently, for example, The U.S. House of Representatives voted to approve the No Child Left Inside Act of 2008. Sponsored by John P. Sarbanes (D-MD), with sixty-four co-sponsors, HR 3036 was approved by a bi-partisan vote of 293 to 109. It would require K-12 school systems to build environmental literacy, strengthen teacher training, and provide federal grants to help schools pay for outdoor education.
I applaud these initiatives. I do think that teachers play a huge role in getting children interested in nature and the environment. One of the best ways for children to learn about nature is at outdoor education centers, parks, national wildlife preserves etc that have naturalists on site who give talks and programs to children. Children will learn more doing this than they will reading books, watching nature films, using interactive websites, or filling out worksheets. I know I did when I was researching the Undersea Encounters books. I learned more about kelp from a park ranger at a Washington state park than from all the books I read on the subject. Only when I held the sticky kelp in my hands did I understand it!
But I do think parents (and other significant adults in a child’s life like aunts and uncles) have the greatest role in connecting children with nature. I agree with Rachel Carson, who said:
If a child is to keep alive his inborn sense of wonder without any such gift from the fairies, he needs the companionship of at least one adult who can share it, rediscovering with him the joy, excitement and mystery of the world we live in.
What toddler is not interested in bugs, leaves and trees, and animals? Parents need to nurture this sense of wonder from toddlerhood all the way through to adolescence (and even during the nature-resistant pre-teen years).
Young children love to spend time with, and have the undivided attention of, their parents. Spending time together outside taking walks and hiking is great way to strengthen the bonds between parents and children. Hiking doesn’t require any equipment (unless you’re hiking on rocky, slippery, or steep trails, and then you’d want to buy hiking boots), and it can be a spontaneous outing, unlike other types of outdoor activities that require reservations, need special equipment, and so on.
Our favorite family vacations have involved hiking in state and National Parks: in the White Mountains of New Hampshire, the Red Rock country of Utah, near tide pools and in the temperate rainforest of the Pacific Northwest.
Here’s a picture of my husband John inspecting a toad with my older son Jeremy (who is now in his last year of college!):
And here’s a photo of Jeremy and his younger brother Tim walking in the New Hampshire woods:
Check out The Children and Nature Network for more ideas about enjoying nature with children.