I was going to write up a little Arbor Day activity list, but I found something more pressing to discuss. I was over at Brain, Child, arguably one of my favorite publications and saw this – Guilt Trip into the Woods by Martha Nichols. Brain, Child is many things, but you can’t honestly say it’s a green publication. I read Brain, Child for the part of me that adores rebel/alternative parenting choices (or mamas with independent brains). Still, I was pleased to see a piece that I thought might relate to another pet topic of mine, which is of course, green living.
Before I go on I should note that Guilt Trip into the Woods is not meant to be a green living piece; it’s a nature piece. The problem here is that in my mind green living and nature intertwine and in the author’s mind they seemingly don’t. Nichols notes…
I don’t believe children need nature more than all the other things we’re supposed to be giving them. It’s not that I think we should start trashing the nearest national park with our SUVs. I remain an ardent environmentalist, hiker, and birder. Yet my own romance with nature does not mean my son needs to feel the same attachment—or that a different attitude will doom him and his entire postmodern generation.
So I wouldn’t say Nichols is un-green, but to ignore nature as a key aspect of raising green kids is wrong in my opinion. The title of this post, Do Kids Really Need Nature, is actually a little misleading, because I agree with Nichols that kids don’t need it – I’ve never heard of a modern child actually kicking the bucket due to lack of nature. However, they should have it and more importantly, if the title of this post was, Do GREEN Kids Really Need Nature, my answer would be a resounding YES.
Unlike Nichols, I do believe a bad attitude toward nature can do harm. People rarely have goals related to issues that don’t matter to them personally. Anyone who thinks you can raise a child without nature appreciation and still expect that child to be green-minded as an adult is seriously under-thinking things. When was the last time you got involved in a cause you didn’t care about; and even if you did get involved, did you give it your all? Why would we expect any different from our kids?
Take nature advocates. Many nature advocates, as Nichols states in her article, do tend to romanticize or dwell on their own childhood nature experiences. However, is that a bad thing or is it what led these advocates to become advocates? I know that I had plenty of green spaces to play in when I was a kid and I loved it. My own son doesn’t have it so good. Green spaces are dwindling, parks are shrinking, safety is a concern and kids spend more time inside then ever before. As a parent, I do have to make an effort if I want Cedar to experience nature.
But it’s hard to make time for nature:
I get it. Parents today are busier than ever. I’m one of them. Trust me, some days there’s not enough caffeine in the world. Still, the part of this picture that I feel Nichols misses is that small choices can add up. She seems overwhelmed by all the nature advocates saying do this, do that, press flowers, hike a canyon and so fourth, and that’s not a surprise. When you’re told that there’s only one way to do something or when you aim too big your goals are harder to achieve. However, you can expose children to nature by changing your thinking about what constitutes nature and by aiming for smaller nature goals.
How to incorporate nature into the everyday…
Change your thinking: Many nature advocates, as Nichols does point out, tend to declare that outside sports are different than nature adventures. I disagree. Being outside is being outside – the opposite of sitting inside on the computer or at the TV. Maybe a three day camp out deep in the woods is too much, but any family can manage a nightly after dinner walk. You’ll still see trees, birds, flowers and more and have the chance to discuss it with your kids.
It can be just as fun and useful to skateboard outside, hit the park, or visit a nature exhibit as it is to go on a long hike up a mountain – it’s not the same and you should aim for varied nature experiences but it isn’t shabby parenting either. The point is to get your kids outside and allow them to do something that appeals to them.
It’s not all tech or all nature: Nichols comes off like parents reside in two camps. Camp one – major nature advocates who are scared by the prospect of technology or camp two – technology lovers who think kids benefit from tech and thus are at war with camp one. It’s not all or nothing. I’m a tech freak (hello problogger). I also love nature. Kids today have technology at their disposal that most of us didn’t and that’s not all bad but it shouldn’t become everything. There can be a meeting of the two. Adults are allowed different hobbies and kids should be as well.
You should though, as a parent, consider a study that Nichols points to – Generation M2: Media in the Lives of 8- to 18-Year-Olds. The study points out that 8-18 year-old kids nowadays manage to spend an average of 7 hours and 38 minutes using entertainment media in ONE day. That’s 58 hours a week. That doesn’t actually leave much time for getting outside or anything else and is excessive in my opinion.
Aim for easy nature goals: You don’t have to make a big production of being outside but you are the parent and being outside does matter so you should aim for small goals and a few bigger ones when possible. Here are some ideas…
- Take that evening walk. During the spring and summer (and yes even in winter) you can easily fit in more outside time if your family takes a neighborhood walk together.
- If you have a choice choose outdoor activities. For example if you can pick the zoo or park over an indoor museum or movie, that’s an outdoor choice. If you can choose the beach over a concrete city based vacation that’s an outdoor choice. Choose an outdoor based summer camp over an indoor based camp.
- Make it fun. Cedar actually doesn’t love plain vanilla hiking as much as he likes it when he gets to bring his bike, scooter or skateboard along, and that’s fine. Active play items outside are perfectly appropriate.
- Plant, read, or watch something. Nature can sprout up anywhere, even on your kitchen windowsill. The magic of nature doesn’t have to always happen in some big green space. Plant some basil or flowers on your porch. Read nature books. See a nature-minded movie.
- Plan outside activities and play dates – if other parents are on board it makes it fun for you too.
- Walk your child to school. I’ve know way too many parents who will drive a child four blocks to school. Really? This is the perfect outside opportunity.
- Buy toys that encourage outside play over indoor play. A cool toy goes a long way towards getting a kid outside and off the couch.
- Talk, talk and talk about nature some more. WHY does nature matter – maybe your child doesn’t know. Tell him about nature and why being outside is important and why conservation matters.
If you’ve got more time…
- Hold a family hiking day once a month.
- Encourage your child’s school to allow more recreational time outside and to hold more outdoor minded field trips.
- Plan games and activities that encourage outdoor time such as bird watching, rock collecting, plant identification, nature scavenger hunts, and more.
- Do a family community clean-up day in a local park or other outdoor area.
I wouldn’t say that Guilt Trip into the Woods was a bad read. It got me thinking and I’d say for that reason alone it’s worth a read. I just think that it ignores the fact that we cannot raise nature conscious kids without nature – you can argue that you can; but I’m not seeing how. It just doesn’t add up.
What do you think? Is nature overrated? Do kids even need it – more importantly do green kids need it?
[all images from my family's collection of photos]