Wednesday, August 10, 2011

Young Explorers: Just Memories or Still a Reality?

Over the last several days, I've encountered a series of articles and quotes about children and nature. They've gotten me thinking about how I interacted with the natural world when I was a child....

My first conscious memory of enjoying the outdoors was when I was about 5. We lived in Alaska, where I distinctly remember picking blueberries by myself at the edge of the forest near the base housing complex. I also remember seeing bison and moose along the roads, and learning to shoot a bow and arrow...but the blueberry picking was an adventure, all by myself!

As I got a little older, my horizons broadened a bit and we also moved just outside of DC. In our typical Maryland suburban yard, I smile as I think of the young me making my own special place under the hanging branches of a sapling weeping birch that my parents had just planted. (There weren't enough branches to hide a bird, let alone a 9 year old, but it still felt special and secluded!)

During those same years, I actually spent most of my time playing down in the woods at the bottom of the hill we lived on. There was a creek running there, and on some days I looked for crayfish and tadpoles and minnows in the water, while on other days my imagination helped me become a pioneer explorer or a princess locked away in the (magic) holly grove. There were even a couple small islands in the creek that became enchanted hideaways. Holly, sassafras, huckleberries, tadpoles, toads and frogs, crayfish.... My play helped me learn a lot about the natural world too.

For several years during the middle of the summer, we drove to Flint, Michigan, where my father took over the practice of a friend of his for a month, while their family went on vacation. Their house backed up onto a large weedy field, and I would catch grasshoppers and fireflies and crickets and anything else I could get my hands on and/or jar around.

When I was 10, we moved again, this time to Massachusetts. Outdoor exploration continued, but we (my brother, our friends and I) added a new twist: there were a lot of toads in the area, so my friends and I would catch toads, keep them in the window wells, give them names, and "train" them to race in different track and field events in the sand box: long jump, high jump, distance race, sprint, etc. I kept elaborate records of which of my toads did the best in each event so that I could win more often, and we'd occasionally go on hunting expeditions to catch more toads.

I particularly remember overseeing my younger brother and his friend in overturning a big stump at the end of our driveway one day. Unbeknownst to us, there was a yellow jacket nest underneath it. I, being the overseer (and the oldest), ran away without getting stung. The others each got one or two stings apiece, which I consider an amazingly low number now, and toad hunting became spiced with a sense of danger after that.

Sometimes I went fishing off the dock in the little lake at the end of our street. Other times my best friend and I would sneak over to the nearby bait store and buy some candy, then walk down to the lake, sitting on a log along the path overlooking it while we ate our spoils and discussed what had happened at school that day.

It was about this time in my life that my Uncle Ted introduced me to My Family and Other Animals, by Gerald Durrell. I loved that book (and still do); here was somebody else who loved animals as much as I did! I dreamed of being able to capture animals and keep them in my room.

Right as I turned 12, we moved again. This time it was a real adventure: we moved to the Panama Canal Zone, driving through Mexico and Central America to get there, and my fantasies of a personal zoo got quite a workout. Shell collecting became my passion, along with beachcombing and exploring tidal pools. I never did catch any monkeys or owls, but I'd bring living creatures home from the beach and try to keep them alive in milk cartons cut out along one side, appropriately outfitted with salt water, sand and rocks. Somehow the animals always died, despite my best efforts. Still, I became deeply fascinated with crabs and hermit crabs, gastropods, cephalopods, and bivalves.

I still have my shell collection, safely packed away in 3 large moving boxes, with the shells themselves carefully organized by type and packed away in cigar boxes, stuffed with cotton to keep them from getting broken.

The outdoors was my playground throughout childhood and even into adolescence. I learned about the world around me, exercising my body, my mind, and my imagination. It was almost impossible to be bored...although I'm sure that I was gloriously dirty when I finally made it home many days.

Do any children still get this kind of freedom to learn about and explore the natural world any more? In our world of picture perfect lawns and neatly trimmed shrubs, is there anything for them to explore and learn from on their own? Was this sort of thing important to you, as a child?
I'd be curious to hear your thoughts...and your memories.


qkslvrwolf said...

I think perhaps you don't realize how lucky you were. Try and look up statistics for how many people during your childhood lived in urban or near urban environments. (Which, as far as I can tell, placed much less emphasis on green space when you were growing up.)

Also, see if you can find out how many people really moved, and especially moved out of the United States.

You're phrasing this as "does anyone do this anymore", but I would wager that it was as exceptional then as it probably is now, if not more so. I would also wager that the minority who live far enough from urban and suburban environments still get to do plenty of this type of exploration, depending on their own parents.

Gaia Gardener: said...

Actually, I don't think I was all that unusual for the time...except in how much we moved. I will grant you that kids in urban environments would probably not have had as much access to green space, but suburban kids had a lot more.

One big change, though, is how far suburban sprawl has expanded in the intervening 50 years. (Yikes! How did I get to be THIS old?!) For example, when we moved to Wichita in 1971 (40 years ago), there were almost no houses north or west of Grandma and Grandpa's development. I think that 119th was dirt north of Maple. It was all still farm country with a few suburban houses mixed in.

Suburban yards weren't as manicured then as now. It was okay to let your dog run free, as long as it didn't cause trouble for your neighbors. Hardly anyone worried about a little dog poop in the suburbs - it was just part of life.

Another huge change is how protective landowners are now about their property. Nobody worried about kids playing on their land, like they do now, unless those kids were causing real damage. If there was a field or woods nearby, you felt free to roam through it without worrying about who owned it.

Rural populations have also declined dramatically since I was a child, and the farms that are left have lost much of their diversity and thus, as Anne of Green Gables would say, "scope for imagination." There are far fewer children living in rural areas.

Working as a naturalist, I noticed a big change in children's awareness of nature around early 1990's. Third graders would come to our programs who couldn't tell the difference between a beetle and a wasp and who were equally scared of both. Any insect was "dangerous" and "frightening."

My point with all this isn't to wax nostalgic (although that's fun) so much as to start a discussion on how to encourage parents to help their children connect more freely with the natural world now. In today's world.

It's important because, no matter how far from nature we think we are, we as humans are still ultimately dependent on the health of the soil, air and water, and on the energy of the sun and the plants that harness it.

Benjamin Vogt said...

Parents seem super aware of the threat of kidnappings--though I heard not long ago there are actually less these days. So parent get overprotective, don't let their kids wander. I grew up in OK with a creek out back, then in MN with a lake out back. Fortunate? Yes. Of course. My kids will get kicked out of the house for sure--and I'll go with them!