Human nature

I’ve been thinking a lot lately about the woods I grew up in. I mean, I didn’t actually grow up in dem woods, but I might as well have. Nestled in the burbs outside Philly, I was lucky enough to have a big stream and a wooded strip of land that ran behind my house and neighborhood. On countless occasions, I would tear out my back door and into the woods, where dream worlds were created and memories made. I cooked mud pies, sledded down hills, explored animal habitats, learned what a dam was. I had my first kiss in those woods (third grade—oh, my!). We watched as fox and wild turkeys ventured into our yard, and the stream flooded into a rushing river when it rained too much. And once, as we naively ventured out onto the stream’s thin ice, my friend Jennifer Allen fell right in! That was pretty scary, but mostly the woods were a haven of trails to hike, trees to climb and places to explore.

Now I’m the mother of a 4-year-old girl. We don’t have that great piece of nature right outside our back door, but even if we did, I could never imagine letting her run free for hours on end the way I did when I was young. It just wouldn’t be safe.

And that got me thinking. We moved to Asheville in large part because we wanted to be active and be surrounded by the beauty of nature. In essence, we do have a HUGE back yard right outside our door! We take hikes and camp and learn about animal habitats. She knows it’s wrong to litter and the reasons why. And happily, my daughter has been exposed to this level of nature since she was born. We’ve purposefully tried to instill that in her. I’m a firm believer that forming a bond with the natural world now can help lay a foundation for environmental stewardship later.

And best of all, it’s free.

That got me thinking again. Is the fact that access to nature is mostly free the reason why I’ve never seen a TV commercial for it? A child running through a field chasing butterflies, while dad catches fish and mom weaves crowns of flowers. The beach doesn’t sponsor any cereal boxes or fruit snacks. Our forests don’t run commercials featuring rope swings and tree forts. That wouldn’t make a lick of sense, now, would it? You’d never see a pharmaceutical company sponsor a study to determine how outdoor activity combats childhood obesity, diabetes, attention-deficit disorders and depression. Nature may be free, but it seems to be costing us a ton NOT to use it.

At a time when organized sports are abundant and overscheduling our kids is epidemic, whatever happened to simple, unstructured play? It’s less time-bound, more varied and is limited only by one’s own imagination. I find it sad that the most exercise some kids get today is from Wii bowling or tennis. Strong thumb muscles don’t do much for us in the big picture. Television, Internet, 40+ hour workweeks, fear of predators, lack of green space, loss of close-knit neighborhoods. And don’t even get me started on our public schools’ pathetic music, art, recess and physical-education policies!

Yes, we live in a different time and place from when I was frolicking freely in the woods. Yes, there are dangers lurking everywhere. But maybe the greater danger lies in keeping our children isolated and sedentary. Maybe the real danger is that we have to schedule time to play, and it usually does not include taking the kids out simply to run through a field or take a nature walk. Heck, a vacant lot and a game of jump rope or hopscotch would be just as wonderful. Meanwhile parents don’t seem to go outside anymore either. Forget going to the gym; go sit out on the front porch, talk to the neighbors, plant a flower bed, ride bikes together, kick around a soccer ball, or rake the leaves into big piles and all jump into them.

Why should we be so unconnected from nature and lose our sense of wonder at it all? Adults need it just as much as, if not more than, children. Kids live through their senses—adults have been desensitized. Children are unhurried—unless, of course, we hurry them along to keep up with us. We can learn a lot from children—or should I say re-learn? Because the wonder is always in us. And by making the time and choosing to be outdoors more, we can locate that inner child who’s gone astray.

But even if we don’t get our own fingernails dirty, I think our attitude about our children and the outdoors needs to change. I encourage all parents, teachers and caregivers to make that commitment to our children. They need to feel the breezes, smell the dankness of a forest, listen to the symphony of sounds, watch waterfalls and maybe even spot a fairy or two.

Oh, and did I mention? It’s free.

[Chrissy Craft has more than 15 years’ experience with early childhood and family relations. She works part time as the infant/toddler liaison for the Child Care Resource and Referral program in Henderson County.]

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6 thoughts on “Human nature

  1. Michael Englisch

    Fantastic! It’s like I could picture the plot of woods and stream out your back door as a child, I had a similar one and can relate to the experience. Even as I sit here at a desk these days I try to find ways or force myself outside to regain those good times. Oh and it’s free!

  2. Rob Close

    kids need time relaxing outside daily, strolling with minimal purpose. without it, every moment is geared for maximum entertainment – and after years of that, we wonder why they’re too bored in school to learn – and then we label that a disorder and pill them up?

  3. Pete Chomentowski

    I wish more parents would stop and take the time to be active in their children’s lives, and to encourage being physically active outdoors with nature. Maybe then we could reduce adult onset diseases that now effect children. And yes, it’s free.

  4. Excellent letter!
    I also enjoy the outdoors, especially the arboretum and hiking the “Hard Times Trail” with my family or my friends. We talk and enjoy each others company, as the creek makes lovely background music with it’s water rushing over rocks and birds chirping beautiful melodies. We watch as two white squirrels scamper up a tree or a Great Blue Herring fishes in Bent creek. Then we go down by the river about 1/2 way through to take our shoes off and dip our feet in the cool rushing water. The rest of the time I am pointing out how to tell which tree is which by the leaf shape or a Jack-in-the-pulpit, Lady Slipper or Indian Paint Brush or fresh bear scat and we have had a few snake incidences I had to shoo away! It is always fun and always entertaining and we always have a story to tell afterwards. I highly recommend the outdoors too! It’s wonderful! and it sure beats the heck out of video games!

    The mountains to the Sea trail is also a wonderful trek in the woods.

  5. Dan Kaczynski

    Well said Chrissy. Rene’ and I took our 3 1/2 year old son Connor and his 3 cousins to Sugarloaf Trail at Carolina Beach this past weekend and even though I hadn’t been there in 10 years, I was reminded there are not many better walks in the state than that one. The kids LOVED it and ran and ran and ran and ran. Simple, beautiful and fun on a Sunday.
    P.S. Keep writing

  6. travelah

    Great letter … there are a lifetime of walks in these woods.

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