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.]