By Hank Osborn, Senior Program Coordinator
What messages are our children receiving about exploring the outdoors, and how will they affect future efforts to protect our environment?
My wife and I try to get our young ones outside as much as possible. We experience a great sense of satisfaction and a feeling that we are doing something right when we see our children enjoying nature. We love watching them hike through the woods or play in a stream or simply skip down a trail. We feel it’s educational to allow them to explore the outdoors and their surroundings. We know that our views are not shared by all parents, but to be honest, it seems strange to us that some parents’ positions appear to be the exact opposite of ours.
We’ve been witness on several occasions to parents actually scolding their children for getting close to nature. “Stay away from the woods! Be careful, there are wild animals in there. There are bears; there are snakes.” Many, many times we have overheard, “Don’t go in the grass, you’ll get dirty.”
It seems that some parents think it’s easier, cleaner, and safer if their kids stay indoors and out of the woods.
Yes, it is harder to keep an eye on children when they’re outside. Supervision can be much easier indoors where children can’t wander away and get into trouble out of sight. It seems that some parents feel safer when their children of all ages sit inside all day and play on their screens and devices—iPods, phones, tablets, video games, TV. Not only are these parents not pushing their kids outside, they are actually encouraging their children to stay indoors—because it’s easier.
Kids can get dirty outside, absolutely. It is a pain, and it can be expensive if they ruin their clothes. Some parents seem to want very badly to keep their kids clean—and their children are listening. My neighbor told me that he understands his son’s aversion to time outside. “He won’t play outside because he doesn’t want to get his shoes dirty,” he says.
Kids can get sick or hurt outside, sure. But don’t forget that they can get hurt indoors, too. Parents today are scared, but maybe it has to do with the way the world is ruled by the media. They are afraid that their kids will get hurt or get Lyme disease or get lost or abducted. We have neighbors who won’t let their kids go outside because they are afraid of bees—year-round!
Although many parents don’t encourage their children to go out at all, there are parents who do recognize that outdoor time for kids is a good thing. One time a parent asked me, “How do you do it? How do you get your kids to play outside? Mine just want to sit inside all day.” It’s not always easy, but we try to lead by example.
Exploring the outdoors is foreign to some of today’s youth as kids are becoming more and more disconnected from nature. Some public schools are now offering “forest preschool” programs in an attempt to counter children’s lack of natural experiences. We think this is great, but it is also sad that the inability of parents to encourage outdoor play has reached a level that requires the schools to introduce children to nature.
According to Richard Louv, child advocacy expert and author of Last Child in the Woods, “Never before in history have children been so plugged in-and so out of touch with the natural world.” Many, many children are not connecting with nature. They are not understanding the outdoors the way past generations have. Is the future of humankind changing? Our relationship with nature is changing. Could the consequences be dire?”
By not being in touch with the outdoors like our ancestors or our parents or ourselves, children are losing contact with the natural world. If the youngest generation’s relationship with our planet is changing, will the movement to protect our planet be affected? Will no connection equal no protection? If they are not connected to nature as children, how will they feel about protecting the environment and our natural resources as adults?
The Trail Conference’s tagline is “Connecting People with Nature.” We work to improve public access to open space. I want to think that the trends we’re seeing with some of today’s youth are reversible. We must continue our efforts to get more children and their parents outside. We must work to further advance natural experiences by finding ways to deliver easy access to parks and preserves. Children and their parents need to play in the woods. Let’s make it happen.
If you’d like to give back to trails or get your family involved in building, maintaining, and protecting trails for future generations, check out our volunteer opportunities.