The Wild Side: The importance of letting kids explore nature
I was searching for a quote the other day, a quote I know I have seen before. I believe it was from noted author and naturalist Aldo Leopold, stating he would have hated to grow up in a world without wilderness. It speaks to the importance of children having an opportunity to explore the natural world and learn their role in it.
Recently, my wife was away on business for a week, so I took time off work to stay home with the boys. It was the hottest of the summer. I despise the heat, which is part of why I live up north. When it gets hot, I am naturally drawn to water. So, for six consecutive days, I took the boys to water. We swam at the beach, fished and floated in the river on tubes. We even took the dog to the boat landing to do a little swimming and fetching.
These outings served several purposes. They kept the boys out of the house and the house stayed clean. They distracted the boys from missing their mom too much, and made them get some exercise. They kept them comfortable, too, except the sunburned areas I missed with the sunscreen. But most importantly, it gave the boys a chance to explore nature and gave me a chance to spend time exploring it with them.
As a child in northeast Wisconsin, my brothers and I had nearly unlimited and honestly unsupervised opportunity to explore nature. Our little farm had fields, forests, streams and ponds for us to play in. We caught fish, frogs and crayfish using a variety of means. We unsuccessfully set snare traps and box traps for mice, chipmunks and rabbits. I wonder what kind of a child, or person, I would have turned out to be if I hadn’t had those experiences. I never really considered if this unhampered access to nature played a role in my becoming a wildlife biologist, but it certainly seems plausible.
When I take the boys afield, I encourage them to explore. I keep them in range, but I give them a little space. I let them touch the stuff on the ground before I tell them it’s deer poop (that only works once, by the way). Their senses are sharp, but uneducated, so when they experience a different smell, texture or sensation, you can see by the look on their faces that they are processing something new. Pleasant or unpleasant, it still makes an impression.
This is a stressful situation for parents to put themselves in. The kids come back to you with stained clothes, wet socks and shoes, and legs scratched by blackberry and raspberry plants. You have to tend to insect bites, stings and ticks. You are watching for porcupines, skunks, bears, wolves; anything that moves can cause concern in a given situation. Plants, too – poison ivy and wild parsnip can turn a fun day into a miserable one. It would be so much easier to keep them in the house.
I know there are a lot of activities out there that compete for kids’ time, even in the summer. Try to fit in some unscheduled, unscripted time to explore the Northwoods this summer, too. See if they react like my boys do. If so, they will catch frogs, chase tadpoles and run from crayfish. They will watch, holding their breath, as an osprey hovers way above the water as it looks for its next meal.
They will ask you to admire every leaf they pick up and they will bring home pretty rocks in their pockets. They will eat more berries than they bring home.
Most importantly, they will share their new experiences with you, and it will remind you of your first experiences in nature – or it will be a shared new experience for both of you.
Jeremy Holtz is a wildlife biologist with the Wisconsin DNR and writes a weekly column in the Star Journal. To contact him, call (715) 365-8999.