Why Are We Abandoning Nature?

IMG_5578-Version-2-11-272x300Declining attendance at national parks, lessened interest in college laboratory classes and field trips, and a general malaise about nature, especially among young people, seem to indicate movement away from the natural world.

Dr. Peter Weigl, a prominent biologist, weighed in on the question of apparent national declining interest in nature*.

Home is where it should all begin.  Experiences with the out of doors is important in early childhood education.  How many parents encourage (or require) their children to mow the lawn, trim hedges, shovel snow or weed the garden?  How many families enjoy local hiking where all can observe the changing seasons, identify plant life, keep a check list of birds identified, or look for wild animals in native habitats?  How many vacations are taken to national parks or national monuments where nature is unavoidably the focus of attention?

As a parent, I have personally noticed in the raising of our own eight offspring, that most children, especially at early ages, willingly and enthusiastically follow their parent’s lead.  When I would get out the canoe to explore an unfamiliar pond, or fish for trout in the nearby creek, or pick fresh peas or raspberries in the garden, almost always no invitation was needed for our children to query, “can we come too”–even before being invited.

Behavioral scientists have indicated that childhood experiences without exposure to the natural world markedly influence later life preferences and educational choices.  This affects physical and mental health as well as learning capabilities.

Dr. Weigl suggests three major processes as critical to developing minds:  First, is for “time and opportunity for unstructured, unforced exploration of surroundings.”  These would be times to touch, play, observe and wonder about what is being experienced outdoors—a learning from within.  Second, learning from the example of caring and enthusiastic relatives, teachers, mentors and peers.  Fewer of the latter seem to be available these days.  Third, is information transfer from reading, personal experiences, teaching, and from an array of electronic sources.  This requires sufficient time for personal contemplation, meditation, thought and synthesis.  Often in our lives, we tend to “overbook” our own abilities; that is, we jam too many things into too little time.  This defeats the premise of allowing ourselves time to think, to sort newly gained knowledge out, and to make connections between observations and value systems.  All of these three can be critical to gaining an appreciation for nature–especially early in life.

Our society and culture has changed dramatically from what perhaps we ourselves experienced while growing up.  One modern parental concern is the possibility of kidnapping as children solitarily enjoy their surroundings, though the statistical chance of this occurring is exceedingly small.  In my own small town childhood, I can remember many times in receiving permission to “go fishing” only to return at the end of the day from experiencing many kinds of outdoor adventures (but usually with no fish); my mother usually had little idea which direction I had gone.

Parents also often seem to have preconceived pathways and lifestyle norms for their children that include mastering verbal, athletic, artistic skills or other avenues of endeavor.  Recreation is often squeezed into indoor activities such as computer video games and watching TV and movies, with little or no opportunity to roam in the out of doors.  Absence of significant teachers, mentors, relatives or peers who provide guidance in natural surroundings is quite likely in the lives of children.  Our educational system has changed dramatically with unfortunate changes in curriculum and additional pressures and paperwork placed on teachers, hampering their efforts. Very often, both parents work and mistakenly have the opinion that “Quality” time adequately replaces “Quantity” time in the lives of their offspring.

Much could be said about the impact of sedentary activities such as electronics in the lives of children.  The constant stimulation arising from the Web or video games translates into “boring” visitations to zoos or wildlife refuges.  Many joggers wear iPods and are oblivious to natural surroundings.  More children are obese than ever before and sedentary lifestyle contributes to this malaise.  Healthy and nutritional foods are often replaced by sweets and “fast foods” and children have little or no understanding or taste for “veggies” and fresh fruits leading to healthy eating habits.

It is my own personal hope that entire families–and it must be family-based–will once again find time to go on hikes together, regularly take a walk through nature, begin to plan well in advance for vacation visits to one of the wealth of national parks available in this country.  At least once a week, families should make a concentrated effort to be together, not only to enjoy nature, but also to solidify family relationships.  Even daily eating a balanced sit down meal together is a worthy family goal.  The general decline of the American family should be of the greatest concern to all of us.  Future government, industry and education leaders will most likely lead in directions dependent upon   childhood and family experiences.

To you kids, get out of doors!  To you parents, lead the way together!

*Weigl, Peter.  2009.  The natural history conundrum revisited:  mammalogy begins at home.  J. Mammalogy, 90(2):265-269.