Friday, December 21, 2012

Kids and Nature—The Connection Matters

We humans have become an unprecedented force on the planet. 

It took nearly all of human history—hundreds of thousands of years since Homo sapiens first strolled onto the savannas of Africa—for the human population to reach one billion early in the 19th century.  After that, it took a mere two centuries for our numbers to skyrocket past seven billion.

Seven billion!  And growing fast! 

It takes a lot of land, water and other resources to keep this growing mass of humanity alive.  And we’re dramatically changing the biological, chemical and physical characteristics of the world to meet our lifestyle expectations.

Each year we destroy swaths of forest totaling the size of Panama.  Estimates project that 90% of Earth’s original forests could be lost by 2030.

Since the 1600s, we have destroyed more than half of the historic wetlands in the United States.

The Pacific Ocean now contains 3.5 million tons of trash—floating garbage swirling in an area the size of Europe.

Inside the tissue of our bodies, we carry a mixture of metals, pesticides, solvents, fire retardants, waterproofing agents and by-products of fuel combustion.

Add it all up—some scientists estimate that we’re driving 150 to 200 species to extinction every day!  Extinction!  We’re talking about living miracles that took millennia to evolve and will never be seen again.  Never.

That’s one heck of a footprint.

And that’s why now—more than ever—we need to help our kids connect to and understand the natural world.  Earth’s biosphere is their home.  They rely on its plants, animals, air, water and soil far more than we teach them.  Far more than we even admit or understand.

Our children’s future depends on us helping them develop a deep appreciation for the natural world, humanity’s place in it, the myriad connections between the oceans, forests, air, soil and countless living creatures.  But we’re not doing enough to help them understand and connect with wild places.  In the words of David Suzuki, “We’re in a giant car heading towards a brick wall and everyone’s arguing over where they’re going to sit.”

Stop arguing.  Jump out of the car.  Slamming into that wall is going to hurt no matter where you sit.  Turn off the engine and start sharing nature with your children.

But where do we start?  Where do we take them to learn?

Outside.  Let them climb that tree.  Encourage them to swim in that creek.  Smile when they pick up that slimy frog.  Allow them to get dirty.  Sleep with them beneath the stars.

In the words of Richard Louv, “Passion does not arrive on a videotape or on a CD; passion is personal.  Passion is lifted from the earth itself by the muddy hands of the young; it travels along grass-stained sleeves to the heart.  If we are going to save environmentalism and the environment, we must also save an endangered indicator species: the child in nature.”

That’s where the learning starts.  That’s how their innate curiosity will be fostered into a deep connection and appreciation.  The quality of their future depends on it.

So get outside.  Take the kids you love.  Share with them the joys of getting mud on your feet!

Coming soon:  numerous scientific studies demonstrate a positive connection between nature experiences and mental health in children.