Friday, July 06, 2012

"Look, don't touch!"

Tim Gallagher sent this article by David Sobel from Orion about how our nit- picking, rule- bound, risk- averse society is creating a generation of kids who dislike and fear and are bored by nature and the outdoors. It should scare the hell out of you. Some quotes:

"Amanda notices a red eft in a patch of moss. She takes a few steps off the trail and Terri chastises her: “Remember, Amanda, nature is fragile! When you walk off the trail, you crush all kinds of little creatures you can’t see.” Farther on Ross scampers up into the inviting branches of a tree that has fallen across the trail. “Sorry, Ross, no climbing, too dangerous, we wouldn’t want you to get hurt.”

"the “look but don’t touch” approach cuts kids off from nature, teaching them that nature is boring and fraught with danger. Inadvertently, these messages send children back inside to the dynamic interactivity of computer games. Could it be that our fear of litigation and our puritanical concerns for protecting each and every blade of grass are hampering the development of the very stewardship values and behaviors that we environmental educators all say we’re trying to foster?"

He contrasts the attitude with a quote from a childhood memoir from gentle John Muir:"We made guns out of gas-pipe, mounted them on sticks of any shape, clubbed our pennies together for powder, gleaned pieces of lead here and there and cut them into slugs, and, while one aimed, another applied a match to the touch-hole. With these awful weapons we wandered along the beach and fired at the gulls and solan-geese as they passed us... We also dug holes in the ground, put in a handful or two of powder, tamped it well around a fuse made of a wheat-stalk, and, reaching cautiously forward, touched a match to the straw. This we called making earthquakes." Sobel elaborates:

"This is probably not the kind of boy you’d want your children out roaming the neighborhood with. Dangerous, unmannered, destructive perhaps. Certainly, you’ve never seen an “Inventing Guns and Shooting Sea Gulls” program on Saturday mornings at the nature center. And yet John Muir helped create the national park system, and his writing has fostered environmental values and behaviors in countless millions of people."

Contrast this with the modern way of introducing kids to nature. "... researchers compared three kinds of childhood nature experience—wild nature experience, domesticated nature experience, and environmental education. They found that "Childhood participation in “wild” nature, such as hiking or playing in the woods, camping, and hunting or fishing, as well as participation with “domesticated” nature such as picking flowers or produce, planting trees or seeds, and caring for plants in childhood have a positive relationship to adult environmental values...participation in environmental education programs (in school, in Scouts, at camp, or in community environmental improvement programs) was not a significant predictor of either environmental attitudes or behaviors.” [Emphasis mine]

There is an enormous amount of valuable, thoughtful, and downright scary stuff here-- read it all. Sobel also has a book, and I'm getting it for the Peculiars (who were raised right themselves) if only to reinforce their already good ideas. Though I'm not sure Eli and the Peculiars really neeed this book as much as everybody else does...


Anonymous said...

This kind of thing spins me up faster than anything. I grew up in suburban LA. Disconnected from nature, right? No. I raised myself running the chaparral canyons and pine forests of the Angeles National Forest till I moved to Central Oregon to do more of the same.

My parents never fretted about me being out for hours or days (or if they did they never let on). My love for nature is not abstract. It's my playground si I care about it. That's the ONLY way this works. You care about things that have resonance; things have resonance because they relate to experience.

I should not have read this first thing in the morning...

It does scare the hell out of me — and it pisses me off.

Jim Cornelius

Holly Heyser said...

I think a companion problem that goes back much further than environmental education is this intense fear of wild food. We've taught our kids for a couple generations now that any wild food they touch might be poisonous. And of course, some things are poisonous, but no one knows which things, so we settle for picking easily identified blackberries along the river and deeming everything else deadly.

Then there's the milder form of hysteria that Hank and I hear a lot when we're foraging: "What if something peed on it?" To which we usually reply, "That's why God made water - so you could wash it off."

All of this nature-phobia contributes to the wrong-headed assumption that the way we all lived before agriculture and modern medicine must have been miserable and fraught with danger. People are so surprised when I tell them hunter-gatherers were/are much healthier than we are, and that they work only about 17 hours a week to feed themselves.

Of course, having a culture like that isn't conducive to making buckets of money, so why would anyone bother?

OK, getting off my high horse now.

Chas S. Clifton said...

I thought we were supposed to say on the trail to avoid soil erosion, but this ... sheesh.

And remember, kids, always wear a helmet when hiking.

danontherock said...

I am happy to say that my 12 year old daughter is as wild as I am. She loves collecting rocks, looks for sign everywhere she goes, and loves climbing trees and rocks.
She loves animals including the ones we eat.

Kitty Carroll said...

There is an entire movement on this very issue: The Children and Nature Started by RIchard Louv, author of the book: "Last Child In the Woods"
Saving our children from nature deficit disorder.

It is a quiet movement but a highly necessary one.

I support it and mention it a lot in my programs.

Anonymous said...

Our Zoo where I work went into a big flurry over this phenomenon(that book is in our library--I read it too), but it is more about appearances than actual function, alas. The book warns about institutionalizing or overcontrolling kids' time in the woods, but our zoo went right on and regulated the poo-poo out of this supposed movement. But then, the people in charge have no kids or other pets of their own, and apparently have long forgotten their own childhoods. I was SO LUCKY to be allowed to grow up semi-feral by my three parents--the two human ones tolerated and accepted my wildness, and I was accompanied, encouraged, and fanatically protected by my third parent--a Dalmation!....L.B.