“Get down! No climbing in the trees!” the park attendant yelled at my seven-year-old son, who was happily clambering up a magnificent oak tree.
I ran over and told Billy to stay in the tree, but the attendant informed me that this was a park rule, and my son had to get down, or he might get hurt.
Are we over-protecting our children, preventing them from developing a genuine interest in nature by keeping them away from it? Several educators have written recently about their concern that there is too much “look, but don’t touch” and not enough incentive to explore in many of our environmental education programs.
Here’s how David Sobel puts it in his article: Look, Don’t Touch: The Problem With Environmental Education:
Much of environmental education today has taken on a museum mentality, where nature is a composed exhibit on the other side of the glass. Children can look at it and study it, but they can’t do anything with it. The message is: Nature is fragile. Look, but don’t touch. Ironically, this “take only photographs, leave only footprints” mindset crops up in the policies and programs of many organizations trying to preserve the natural world and cultivate children’s relationships to it.
He goes on to explain that between the ages of six and twelve, children have an innate desire to explore the woods, build forts, make potions from wild berries, and all these activities provide an organic, natural way for them to develop environmental values and behaviors. He believes that the “look but don’t touch” approach, by contrast, cuts kids off from nature.
There are of course plenty of areas where the environment really is too fragile to be opened up for mass outdoor recreation. But if we keep nature and children too far apart, how will they care about preserving our planet? If children don’t feel connected to nature, then why will they work to protect it as adults?
From The New York Times:
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?
The answer of course is balance. Children can learn to respect nature and not harm truly fragile areas, or pick everything in sight. They can come to understand that we are all part of the environment and need to take care of it. Our children are, after all, the future stewards of our earth.
The dangers of staying home, eating junk food, and playing computer games seem to me much greater than getting outside and climbing a tree. What do you think?
Photo Credit: the author