Eww! Get that bug away from me!
Rangers at National Wildlife Refuges are discovering a new phenomenon this summer: young visitors are often scared of nature, whether it’s creepy crawlies, spiders, bats, snakes, or sometimes even ladybugs and fish.
Of course, it’s important to be careful around wildlife, and to treat animals with respect. In an area where grizzly bears, or alligators, are the star attraction, then we should have a natural fear of them, and they of us, and we humans need to follow the proper rules for how to behave around such wildlife.
But rangers have noticed that a fear of all nature is flourishing, both in children and adults.
“We’re seeing more kids sheltered and afraid,” says Ashley Inslee, a biologist at Bosque del Apache Refuge in New Mexico. “Even college kids interested in conservation haven’t been out hunting, fishing, hiking. They’ve seen TV shows or National Geographic and think being outdoors is cool, but it can be uncomfortable at first.”
Of course this makes sense: if a child’s experience of nature is watching Bear Grylls “Escape from Hell” in the jungles of Guatemala, or maybe studying the effects of global warming on the Internet, but she can’t remember the last time she explored some woods or a beach, then it’s not surprising that actually being out in nature comes as a bit of a shock.
Kids Consume Almost 11 Hours A Day Of Electronic Entertainment
We know that children spend increasingly longer amounts of time indoors, and on their electronic devices: a 2010 Kaiser Family Foundation study found that 8-18 year-olds devote an average of 7 hours and 38 minutes (7:38) to using entertainment media across a typical day (more than 53 hours a week). And because they spend so much of that time “media multitasking” (using more than one medium at a time), they actually manage to pack a total of 10 hours and 45 minutes (10:45) worth of media content into each day.
That was four years ago; I’m sure the number is much higher now. What time is left, then, for stepping outside to enjoy nature?
As the National Wildlife Refuge’s Susan Morse explains:
Some fears — sparked by active imaginations or fuzzy senses of geography — are fairly easy to dispel. Like worries about encountering zebras or lions at Tualatin River Refuge near Portland, Oregon, (neither are found there) or wolves and alligators at Great Swamp Refuge in New Jersey (where neither roam).
“Children are always nervous about alligators in the swamp,” says Dave Sagan, visitor services specialist at Great Swamp Refuge. “Once they find out that we do not have them this far north and I tell them there are no venomous snakes and that the scariest thing on the refuge is a plant with three leaves (poison ivy), many fears seem to go away.”
Like many teachers, I’ve seen this scared response to nature in my classroom. It only takes one teenage girl to scream when she sees a spider crawling in under the door to set a whole class off. It’s true that some students will do anything to avoid having to actually work; nevertheless, when I’ve talked this over with my students, it’s clear many of them just don’t spend any time outdoors.
Kids (And Parents) Need To Get Outside
Pop culture and myth sustain many nature fears. For instance, only in movies do bats drink human blood or purposefully fly in your face. So let’s get our kids off the couch and into nature, so they can find out the truth.
Not only do our youngsters deserve the opportunity to enjoy nature, they also need to do it on their own, instead of always being supervised. “Nature play areas“ are still a new idea in the U.S., but they are increasingly common in Europe: set-aside areas where kids can go off trail, climb trees, create sculptures from natural materials, play with water and mud, and indulge in all kinds of creative play, all with minimal adult supervision.
Whatever it takes, let’s get rid of the fear. The dangers of staying home, sitting all day staring at a screen while munching on corn chips and drinking soda, are far greater than getting off that couch and stepping outside!
Photo Credit: thinkstock