Let the Children Play With Sticks
Educator, Trainer and Children’s Programmer
The plugged-In Kid
I will always say that I am glad to have had the opportunity to raise my children before ‘this’ all happened. This era of electronics, gaming devices and social media. In those days, parents had a direct line of communication to their children by way of eye contact and verbal communication. If you are saying that my kids must have had exposure to electronics during the 90s, you would be correct. However, in our household it hadn’t yet become acceptable for each individual to have possession of their own devices or a gaming unit. We had one TV and only one computer in the home and the adults were in charge of the household, leaving the children to find ‘other’ things to do. So, the age old concept of outdoor free-play was our answer to a child’s boredom. The cure for boredom was a clear path out the back door to 15 acres of Kentucky hill country, and a few neighboring kids with the same plan. Pushing kids out the door proved beneficial to me as I got to keep the house a bit cleaner but, I also knew that the children gained valuable life skills by playing outside. It wasn’t until later that I began to see nature-play as a necessity. I now believe that children are experiencing negative physical and mental effects as they are pulled further away from nature.
As an educator and trainer, I rarely miss an opportunity to stand on my soapbox and advocate for the benefits of unsupervised nature play. Over several years, I have had the opportunity and have witnessed the positive effects on children from exposure to natural play spaces. It hasn’t been an easy effort of introducing my outdoor play and nature based learning to the adults in control of the ‘rules’. Many of the roadblocks are due to adults with fears, pages of regulations and the lack of knowledge. They worry about the destruction of trees, vegetation and wildlife habitats that may occur from tree forts, creek play or leaf collecting. They have also created a Boogie-man out of nature. Adults are concerned with insect bites and stings, wild animals, allergies, scratches, bumps and broken bones. Then, there is the dark cloud of stranger danger. Children that ride their bikes or walk to local play spaces are in danger of being hit by a car, assaulted or of abduction. Has it become safer to just keep kids inside and plugged in?
Author, Richard Louv has coined the phrase Nature-Deficit Disorder in an attempt to bring awareness by way of research and expert accounts that indicates the direct exposure of nature is essential for healthy childhood development. There are many reputable reports that support the positive side effects of children’s behaviors when exposed to the natural world. I have personally worked with mainstream children and children with special needs, from toddlers to teens, of various social and economic backgrounds. I have been among groups of children during unsupervised play in a natural setting and I am sure that most parents would be surprised to see the abilities that their own children possess. They not only experience a calmness but, they become problem solvers. They are more adventurous and team players and on and on. Their senses are awakened and they become more observant. These children gain assets that are beneficial to classroom work and create strong foundations for adulthood.
The benefits on mental and physical health of the outdoor child in comparison to the plugged in child will continue to be debated by parents who believe that their indoor-child is healthy and most importantly safer than the free-playing outdoor-child. I recently had a parent come to me with excitement to ask me if the kids would be playing Pokémon Go during our summer programs. He continued to try to fill me in on the health benefits that it offers kids as they go outside and walk around. It took every ounce of control to keep my eyes from rolling out of their sockets and giving that ‘face of defeat’ look while he was making his point. To go into a debate with parents over obesity rates, lack of social skills and lack of motivation in children is like getting in the ring with a honey badger. But, I’m not giving up the fight and I will continue the campaign to take devices from their little hands and bring natural play spaces back within reach of the children.
I work directly with children every day and I’m that teacher that allows the kids to pick up sticks. The stick is an instant tool for free-play with a multitude of applications. I will gladly be the first to pick up a stick and lead the children in safe stick-play adventures. I love to ask groups of kids about outdoor adventures. I always ask kids if anyone had been camping, or have they been on a hike, climbed a tree, built a fort or played in a creek. The enthusiastic hand waving in the air to tell me their stories has sadly dropped in numbers over the years. Fewer kids have adventures to tell, and more kids seem saddened to sit quietly because they wish that they had an adventure to tell. So, I tell stories of my adventures. I bring treasures from my own trails; rocks, feathers, leaves, even insects, frogs and turtles. I feel that if I don’t give them this exposure in an indoor classroom, then these objects and creatures will be erased from their minds, just as the dictionary is removing nature words and replacing them with social media words and phrases. I’m not asking kids to identify bird species. But, I am very disappointed that they can name each zoo animal and only a few local wildlife creatures. The ones that they do identify are only because they recognize it from a cartoon on TV (chipmunk-Alvin, squirrel-Sandy…)
It even seems that some ‘scouting’ groups don’t seem as scout-like as I remember. One day I asked a group of girl scouts if they have been ‘scouting’ this summer… After a few seconds of silence, they told me about their art badges and sewing badges and a trip to the aquarium. If it weren’t for the cookies that I just bought, I would have thought that this was a 4H group and not a scouting group. I wanted to know about a campout or a canoe adventure. ‘Um, not yet’. ‘Maybe one day’. My heart hurt for these could-be-scouts. Especially the girls! Girls love outdoor adventure too. Someone please, take these girls camping. It makes me terribly sad to think of the repercussions that may come from losing contact with the natural world, all because our kids hadn't experienced a campsite.
Now, to be fair, if I ask the children if they play an organized team sport, the hands go back up and I force a smile and refrain from giving a lecture on the benefits of unsupervised play. (Before you go there… my kids played every sport that the school had to offer. Lots of my money went into the school’s sports programs. Go Wildcats!) . Organized sports are just that, organized. I give the parents credit for encouraging a child to be physically active as it is a learned habit. I just wish that time is also given to unorganized activities.
The Vanishing Stewards
Our children are born with a natural connection with all senses tuned in to nature. The separation occurs when adults redirect them. With each generation of parents, the bridge between nature and humans appears to be deteriorating. I have hopes that adults get the message and get on board by educating and leading by example. Children see grown-ups toss trash from the cars, destroy habitats, and show disrespect for other living beings. They learn habits from adults, even if their gut feeling is telling them different, they will mimic the adult. Children get a quick and brief Earth awareness plug in school curriculum, in the month of April, and then it is not brought up again. I am concerned that parents rarely have Earth discussions with their kids. If more parents would pull the car to the side of the road, pick the turtle up and set him on the other side, our children would surely ask lots of questions on the drive home. ‘Why did you do that?’ Your conversation could be about saving a life, migration, turtles vs. tortoises, ‘where will it go now?’, ‘was it a boy or a girl?’
Try and distract from Pokémon for a few moments, and go find honeysuckle or the moon. It doesn’t have to become the memories of just the grandparents to be relating and telling stories of outdoor play as if it were a dying tradition. This is the time for today’s parents to reconnect with their children. You too will find a calmness and satisfaction as you adventure outdoors with your kids. If you make that effort to reconnect, you will find that nature is a teacher, nurturer, healer and spirit guide.
In my position with the library, I have been very fortunate to have a platform to reach out to families. By providing several nature based programs, I hope that I am inspiring curiosity in the children. A few weeks ago, my good friend Gerry James was kind enough to come visit and speak at one of my events at the Brown County Library in Mt. Orab, Ohio. I asked him to bring ‘adventure’ and ‘outdoor exploration’ to our young people, and he delivered so much more. He brought a beautiful message from the Explore Kentucky Initiative, of his adventure paddling 137 miles on the Ohio River from Cincinnati to Louisville, that did spark enthusiasm and excitement in the children. The children were given an opportunity to get a close up, hands on view of the SUP board that was used in the presentation. Proving that it doesn’t necessarily take a video game or bouncy house to get their attention. He also addressed issues of outdoor concerns and answered questions from the adults. As the children continued the conversation with comments and questions about river adventures and rock climbing dangers, and wild animal encounters, the twinkle in my eye and the smile on my face was obvious throughout the night. Even if only a few got the connection, I am pleased.
My hopes are that by educating children and bringing outdoor exploration within reach, that kids will be more motivated to ‘unplug’ and give nature-play a chance. The kids will accept the change only if the adults are making the connection too. Since parents are a child’s first teacher, they have to be invested stewards as well in order for it to be passed down to their children. Whether you are a parent or not, if you are concerned about the state of the environment, teaching the village children becomes everyone’s responsibility. We are in need of help in order to educate, inspire and get kids back outside. Help rebuild the bridge that has been weakened by over protective parents, greedy developers, and under-enthusiastic teachers. Pick up that stick and go build that fort. I will be near to give you guidance.