Earth Day: Raising Kids Who Really Love this Planet
I was fortunate enough to grow up in a family with a father who was determined to pass along his love of nature to his four daughters. During the childhood summers we spent at the family cottage on Go Home Lake near Mactier, Ontario, he'd take us on canoe trips so that we could learn how to portage a canoe and how to differentiate between poison ivy and other leafy plants (need-to-know information if you were going to use a leaf as makeshift toilet paper while you heeded nature's call en route). And during hikes along the power line behind our cottage, he taught us to listen for rattlesnakes, showing us the notches on his axe (an axe for each rattlesnake he'd had to kill during the years when the lake was being opened up to cottagers), just in case we weren't taking his warnings seriously. The axe proved to be an unnecessary prop. Throughout my growing up years, the sound of a chipmunk rustling amidst the ferns provoked terror. I had a very active imagination. What my Dad didn't teach my sisters and I (because he didn't have to) was that we should behave like guests when we were in nature (as opposed to boorish tourists who felt like they had paid for the right to pollute and destroy the place). Needless to say, we've all grown up passionate about the magic that happens when you combine kids and nature—and we're not the only ones. Environmental psychologist Nancy Wells of the College of Human Ecology at New York's Cornell University feels that giving kids the opportunity to play in nature bodes well for the future of the planet. She discovered that free play activities—such as camping, hiking, or playing in the woods—can promote a life-long love of nature and a heightened awareness of environmental issues. Exposing kids to nature is good for kids and communities, too. Nature play helps to relieve childhood stress, boost children's attention spans, and makes it easier for them to make friends than when they are playing in more structured play environments. (One study showed that children who have suitable places to play outdoors have twice as many friends as those who don't.) Given that both the child and the community have so much to gain from nature play, wouldn't it make sense to declare it every child's right to play in nature (and then re-design our communities in ways that ensure that goal is achieved)?