Thursday, December 12, 2013
By KJ DELL'ANTONIA
Our environment, we're told by climate scientists, is fragile. But are children learning that their natural environment -- the trees, dirt and grass that surround us -- is "fragile," too?
Several educators, after observing years of children's being taught to "look, but don't touch," have argued this summer that many programs and policies designed to protect the natural world are actually preventing a new generation from developing an interest in it.
Don't climb the trees, don't dig holes, take nothing but pictures, leave nothing but footprints -- do we keep nature and children too far apart in the interest of protecting (or overprotecting) them both?
"We don't play with nature," blogger Michael Barton overheard a day-camp counselor tell a camper who had picked up a branch. The environmental educator David Sobel, who wrote "Look, Don't Touch: The Problem With Environmental Education," in the July-August issue of Orion magazine, says this is an attitude that's all too common.
He's seen wildflower programs where the children see more PowerPoint slides than flowers (which, of course, you can't pick) and arboretums where urban children are encouraged to have a love of trees but are not allowed to climb even the big native ones. He's also opined against land trusts that forbid the building of forts on the Maine coast and view even fairy houses as a "scourge."
But allowing children to explore the natural world (ideally without an adult hovering near) is what creates children who love that world enough to take care of it. And allowing children to take risks in that environment pays off for them, too.
Echoing Kay Wyma, who wrote "Let Them Climb Trees (and Fall)" here a few weeks ago, the conservationist Ken Finch writes, "a child can practice and learn good judgment by climbing trees at age 8, or that can wait until they are 16 and behind the wheel of a car.
"Either way, that learning must occur if a child is to be well equipped to face the ongoing dangers and challenges of adult life."
The need for real, wild, natural play is beginning to catch on again, with communities that are building natural playgrounds with more sand, water, rocks and logs than swings and slides. Can the adults who control the "natural playgrounds" that already exist -- the state parks, the outdoor centers, and the trusts and trails -- resist the urge to be what one biologist calls "nature bullies," scolding children away from developing their own love for the land?
Climbing trees, digging holes, collecting rocks and catching tadpoles are time-tested childhood traditions that haven't broken nature yet, and in most places, aren't likely to. Isn't a little tough love outside our outdoor centers and nature trails worth it? A childhood spent climbing and hiking and wading leads to a fresh generation of parents who will encourage their children to do the same -- and who will make sure that the trees and trails and ponds are waiting to be explored.
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