Environmental Education: Turning Our Kids Away From Nature?

“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?

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Photo Credit: the author


Kathy Perez
Kathy Johnson5 years ago

when I was a kid we have virtually free reign in the outdoors. we climbed, swam, built forts, pretended, rode our bikes, played kickball and soccer games with kids around the house and had a blast! don't be so protective. kids get hurt. every scar has a story!

Ann G.
Ann G5 years ago

In middle school, when I climbed one of the only trees on our campus of the right size and shape to do so, I was repeatedly told not to by wonderful teachers, who simply feared a lawsuit. How sad, that teachers can't even let kids be healthy in the great outdoors!

Anita Wisch
Anita Wisch5 years ago

I spent my youth climbing trees, building underground forts in vacant fields, and staying outside til the streetlights came on.

I feel so bad for children, nowadays. They are stuck inside, getting no exercise, and breathing manufactured air. Get them outside!

Amanda M.
Amanda M5 years ago

With the bubble-wrap mentality of the helicopter parents, it's no wonder kids can't get outside and be kids anymore!

Liz E, are you sure we're not related? With the exception of hopping on the bus to go swimming (I couldn't do that until I was 16 since I grew up in PG County just outside DC), that sounds just like my childhood! I'm trying to give my kids the same joys of childhood, but thanks to the Paranoid Penny human buzzkills out there, it's not that easy.

But dammit, we're not going down without a fight. I'd rather have my kids dirty from playing outside than fat and lazy from sitting around playing video games or plugging into their electronic toys all day.

Ann B.
Ann B5 years ago

Kids need to be kids - yes keep them safe but they have to engage within the environment to know the environment. Kids need to be taught both in school classrooms and outside in the forest, near a lake, etc.

Edo F.
Edo F5 years ago

If people in the US were less into suing every little incident you wouldn't have this problem. The parks are probably scared if the kid falls the parents will sue their arses!

Prentise Wylie
pre,tpse w5 years ago

Well, at least boys are now equal with girls -- it used to be that only girls couldn't climb trees because "they might get hurt." How ridiculous and limiting all the lawsuits have made us -- there have been several playgrounds removed where I live because of lawsuits. When I was a child, getting hurt climbing trees and using playgrounds was just a natural and acceptable part of life, and I am the stronger for it.

annie s.
christine s5 years ago

Yes keep your children safe and make sure they are aware of the dangers but let them play and explore.

Pearl Duval
Pearl Duval5 years ago

Aside from sensive, protected areas where endangered species survive and where human impact must be kept to a minimum, I say : let the children play outside ! Kids are supposed to run, jump, fall, get dirty and hurt themselves. That's how they are suppose to discover the world, develop motricity and feed their imagination.
Plus, it doesn't hurt if they can get fresh air and kept OFF the proverbial couch as much as possible !

Katie C.
Katie Cather5 years ago

Children should NOT be touching in nature areas--groomed parks, gardens, no problem. But they don't just "touch"; they pull and destroy. This is not generating respect. But if they climb trees, and they should fall or trip or get hurt in any way, we can be certain there will be a lawsuit which hurts the already-hurting public nature areas. So, kids should NOT be climbing the trees in natural areas. Again, climb where permission has been given and the public tax dollar won't be spent defending a liability lawsuit.