I dislike the term “nature walk.” I dislike it just as I dislike “play dates.” I like actually playing, I like nature, and I like walks. But artificial, planned, structured interactions with people, or with the non-human world very often do humans a disservice. I’m no great naturalist, nor a great scientist, but I can generally be relied upon to know the names of the things in the woods. When I was seventeen, the thing I wanted most was a good pair of binoculars (the Bushnells I shelled out $300 for then are still my only pair), and in college, I found my ultimate dream job: running an environmental camp for elementary and middle school kids.
Somehow, I came to know the names of things in English and Latin, to teaching biology, to loving the living world so much that astronomy was of little interest to me, transfixed as I was by the teeming life on this planet. But how did I get there? My parents are not crunchy granola hippies, by any stretch. There was no designated “nature time,” and we didn’t go camping. But like most kids of my demographic, I played outside a lot. And while playing outside does not make every kid a naturalist, nor eventually an environmentalist, it’s generally a prerequisite. Ask your own favorite bird geek, nature nerd, or outdoorsy camping sort, and you will generally find that they roamed the woods and fields as kids, bringing home so many animals that their house rules often came to read “No snakes in the house” and “No more dead birds in the freezer.”
House rules aside (and there’s no limit to the number of dead birds permitted in MY freezer), kids have got to play outside, with equal parts “play” and “outside”. With the rise of helicopter parenting, parental paranoia and competitive preschools, it seems like kids’ outdoor time is shifting toward the scheduled, structured “nature walk” with a trained professional. These are wonderful things, and you can learn a lot from a Park Ranger, or an Audubon naturalist. But doing only such walks is like giving your kids a grammar workbook before you’ve ever read Dr. Seuss. They have to love it first, and learn it after. I didn’t know I was falling in love with biology as a kid. I collected birds’ nests, and taught myself basic taxidermy. I caught minnows in traps, and crayfish with nets, and pinned beetles to a corkboard. Consumptive, participatory, immersive nature. I didn’t see a line between myself and the environment; it was my own native habitat. As I got older, I started to care what happened to it. But I never thought of humans on one side and the environment on the other. One assailant, one victim.
I see a lot of well-meaning nature educators starting kids on the doom and gloom way too early. Sure, kids can learn about recycling, alternative energy, and riding bikes instead of driving. But if you want them to really care, you’ve got to let them play. Let them go off the trail, climb trees, collect old wasps’ nests and giant mushrooms. Let them keep pill bugs in a jar, or race frogs, or go fishing, or (gasp!) even hunting. They will come to environmentalism in their own time, once they love what it is that needs saving.
I got in trouble once while I was running that environmental camp–we used to hang around by a swampy pond and catch turtles and frogs. Then the kids discovered that if they waded in and stood for a while, they would come out with leeches attached to their legs. Even the most difficult and taciturn 12 year old boys came alive at this. We’d pull the leeches off and watch them in a tray of water for a while. But then word reached the parents and I had to officially shut down Leechbaiting. But I didn’t stop the kids from wading, and what can I do if a few unexpected leeches swim by? After all, who am I to stand in the way of children, released into where they belong.
Getting kids to have a natural, easy relationship with the wild world can come about in innumerable ways. But at either end of that spectrum are people, often well-meaning, who get in the way. At one end, the indoors people, who see nature as dirty, risky, dangerous, and threatening. They tell kids not to touch all that dirty nature with their clean hands. At the other end, the more misanthropic environmentalists who see humans as dirty, risky, dangerous, and threatening. They tell kids not to touch all that precious nature with their dirty hands. We need to find the broad middle ground, respecting the right limits of our activity, and limiting the harm we might do, while still letting them really play. I hear all the time that we should not disturb any living thing unless it’s “necessary.” Let the kids climb, run, race frogs and catch fish; it is necessary. In fact, it’s our only hope.