Kids can be hard on a forest if left to run wild and free, but that's the best way to teach them to love nature. And kids' games will never be as destructive as what adults continue to do to the planet.
When I was hiking on a muddy forest trail, my four-year-old son found a big fuzzy caterpillar. He was elated, running back and forth along the trail to show everyone, shrieking, “Look! Want to see my caterpillar? See how cute it is? Try petting it.” His enthusiasm was so infectious that I held back my usual response: “OK, now it’s time to let the caterpillar go.” My instinct is to protect the animals and insects that he finds, but that day I was struck with a thought – that perhaps kids need to ‘entrap’ nature in order to learn how to appreciate it.
Children who spend a lot of time playing outdoors, enjoying hours of unsupervised, unstructured fun just messing around in the woods, will be hard on nature. They will leave traces of their war games, fort building, bushwhacking, and weird mud-leaf-berry concoctions. They might hurt animals inadvertently – baiting chipmunks with peanuts, catching frogs and fish and putting them into buckets, touching birds’ eggs, collecting chrysalises, caterpillars, and insects in glass jars, netting butterflies – but these children will grow up into adults who love and feel comfortable in nature. A few squashed, over-handled, or neglected critters are a small price to pay for adults who value the wonders and beauty of nature and will return to these childhood memories when deciding whether to vote for a conservation measure.
Compare that to children who grow up fearing the outdoors. Nature is bubble-wrapped for them, handed out in small, sterilized doses, and is always mediated by a parent who conveys that same fear or discomfort. They grow up disliking it, feeling intimidated by its immensity and unable to appreciate its complexity. They don’t like getting dirty and handling critters makes them squeamish. As adults, they will feel less of a pressing urge to protect nature through policies and activism because they have no personal connection with it.
Matthew Browning studies the recreational use of natural spaces. He is an advocate of creating “nature play areas” within national parks, where kids can do all the glorious things they’re usually told not to do by paranoid adults – leave the trail, climb rocks and trees, pick flowers, whack trees with sticks, dig holes, move rocks. In Scandinavia he witnessed these nature play areas in action and concluded that, yes, kids do beat up the forest, but they develop a wonderful active relationship with nature and clear empathy with other living things.
This does translate to greater respect for nature in adulthood. Emma Marris writes in Slate about a 2010 study that found that “among people who ended up dedicated to nature and conservation, most had a childhood filled with unstructured play in nature, some of which was ‘not environmentally sensitive by adult standards; rather, it included manipulation of the environment’.”
The scientific observer effect states, “You cannot observe or measure something without changing it.”
I see how that principle applies to my children. They interact with the natural world in a tangible, head-on, physical way that leaves its mark on everything they touch. I watched my son love his fuzzy caterpillar to the point of near-death. He kept dropping it, picking it up, cradling and stroking it, jiggling it in the palm of his hand. It got lost briefly in the car but was retrieved from the car seat. Finally it returned to a leafy branch, a little worse for wear but still alive. For weeks afterward, my son talked about that caterpillar.
It’s time we let the children play, let them cultivate relationships on their own terms with the beautiful forests around us, let them play free from the fussy criticisms of adults who have clearly forgotten their own wonderful hours of forest play, or never had them. As Richard Louv says, “Unless you know something, you are unlikely to love it.” And we need the next generation to love nature more than ever before.