Walking through a neighborhood chock full of kids and not hearing their laughter means we are a society are in crisis.
I remember as a teenager feeling such utter pain knowing all I wanted to do with my life was learn as much as possible about the natural world and teach others. Oddly enough, at that time, it didn’t seem like enough. I thought I needed to be out protesting as an activist or a policy maker to protect the natural world I loved.
You see, back then, most kids still played outdoors much of the time we weren’t in school. We played capture the flag throughout the neighborhood, organized massive water gun fights in the summer, rode our bikes, swam, played sports organized entirely by neighborhood kids, and tromped through the woods building forts and picking wild berries. This wasn’t that long ago, but not all of us had cell phones in high school at that point, and for those who did, they were mainly for emergencies. We did all have computers but they still weren’t nearly as addictive at that point.
Did my parents warn me not to go too far from home? Did they worry about kidnappers? Of course, but they loved nature too and the appeal of the outdoors was too strong to keep me inside and I know the other kids felt the same way, if their parents worried about them at all. Through my teen years, I’d sneak out at sunrise and stay in the woods alone until after lunch and then come back home muddy, covered in a few additional scratches, and feeling so alive after my adventures – often returning to pissed off parents.
Today, something has changed. The appeal of friends, freedom, the beauty of the natural world, and play has been lost in two short decades and has been replaced by the lure of electronics, disconnected relationships, fearful parents, overly busy lives with organized extracurriculars, and the comforts of air conditioning and heat. Clothing has adjusted as well from warm, durable, insulative outfits for children, to thin, nearly see-through “fashion” clothes from many mainstream stores because people no longer care – they’d rather look cute or perfect for a few months and then toss the clothes away.
Parents today hold nature phobias, and these are unfortunately passed down to their kids. I admit, I have my own fears. I’ve pushed myself to let go of my phobia of deep water. I’m a gold medalist swimmer and so my fear of deep water is irrational, I know, and I’ve pushed myself again and again to face me fears – cliff jumping, swimming across lakes, swimming in the ocean, polar plunges, an open-water swim triathlon. I’ve done all of these things, and yet, my fear still passed on to my oldest child. We had to enroll her in swim lessons to get her over it since our family adventures mean our kids must be strong swimmers.
I learned from my mistake and with the younger two, when we go to the river, ocean, or a pool, every time they get water on their face or go under, I’ll cheer, “Yay! You did it!” and smile really big. My younger two don’t appear to have any phobias whatsoever.
If parents treated all of nature this way, kids would not be inheriting such nature phobias. I see phobias in children of flies, spiders, worms, roly polys, foxes, thunder, bees, the woods in general, mud, plants, and rain. These fears may seem normal to some younger parents, but for older generation parents, they know these phobias are actually unusual. And I can tell you, if you treat small childhood fears correctly, they will grow out of them to at a least the level it doesn’t control them – even if your child is autistic.
It’s natural for babies to by lying on blankets in the woods, gazing up at the clouds. I remember taking my oldest in the woods as a baby and just sitting there with her so she could experience it early. And it’s natural for toddlers to be crawling in the mud, eating dirt, tasting leaves and sticks. Of course, it’s normal for older kids to be climbing trees, running through the woods barefoot, making noise, throwing rocks in creeks, climbing up muddy banks, and splashing in streams.
What’s NOT normal or natural is how most kids are raised today.
We are living in an extremely disconnected way – indoors all day in a box. Most of the mental health problems we are seeing today COULD be prevented by raising our kids with at least 3 hours of time in nature every day throughout childhood. That may seem like a lot to many of you, but most kids have way more screen time each day. Trust me, it’s not only possible, but it will make your life as parents way enjoyable as well!
Kids and especially teenagers MUST experience the feeling of RISK. Yes, it’s scary. As a mother of three, I’m terrified of anything happening to my kids. But what is worse than the occasional bumps and scratches they may experience over the years (which are surprisingly rare after the toddler years, by the way, if you start forest adventures as soon as they can walk) is a life unfulfilled and overwhelmed by phobias, anxiety, depression, and suicide. Not to mention outdoor time has tons of other benefits – stronger, healthier bodies, smarter more creative minds, better problem solving skills, increased grit and independence, and more. Many rebellious teens also turn to drugs especially when they are missing something in their life and can’t figure out what (nature and adventure, of course).
As a parent or even young adult who hopes to one day become a parent, start by rekindling your own relationship with nature or starting one from scratch. Learning to grow, harvest, and use herbs or forage is a great way to start your own journey with the natural world and is a great science activity for kids.
Another is the moment you step outside with you kids, stop and listen to the bird songs. Point to the first one you hear and say, “What is that?” This tiny action will tell them birds and nature matters.
Please leave a comment below on your own childhood experiences with nature and what you’re doing today to maintain your connection to the natural world!