Laura McMasters - Just add nature
I have the best job in the world: I teach outdoor science.
With a team of expert helpers, I take kids outside to find bugs and mud. Their eyes light up, but often their brows furrow from concerns, and those responses should concern us all.
When we were growing up, we were sent outside with orders not to come back until dinnertime. It worries us that kids today don’t spend more time outdoors. And it worries us when parents and our society discourage the connection with nature that children need.
Many children suffer from a syndrome labeled “nature-deficit disorder,” first described in Richard Louv’s disconcerting 2005 book, “The Last Child in the Woods.” The condition occurs when they are not exposed to enough of the natural world.
Research shows that a walk in the woods is good for us, aiding our immune systems and calming our psyches. The brain of a child deprived of the opportunity to spend unmanaged time in nature fails to develop some of the skills needed for life. It’s important to consider how we got there.
The danger of ‘stranger danger’
Decades ago, a few child abductions involving sexual abuse and deaths of small children led well-meaning police departments and school districts to develop the “Stranger Danger” program. Subsequent generations of children were taught these rules of survival: “Never talk to strangers” and “Be afraid to venture into vacant lots and wilder edges of parkland.” Young parents passed their fears of the unknown on to their children.
The irony, as child therapists will tell you, is that inappropriate behavior is much more likely to come from someone the kids know and trust than from some stranger.
Living in a ‘comfort zone’
American children have limited contact with the natural world. Our homes, schools and cars stay at comfortable temperatures, and computerized devices bring the world into our hands. We have frightened, protected and distracted our kids out of the woods and into our “safe” houses.
There is a fine line between protecting and terrifying.
In America, we have created a situation where fear itself is the monster. We need to put this monster back in its place; we need to teach our kids to be aware of their environment and trust their senses to make decisions about safety, not to be fearful of natural surroundings.
It may not be as simple as opening the door and telling children to play outside, but I guarantee the wonders and magic of the natural world are waiting.
School grounds as classrooms
As the “bug lady,” my job is to help kids find the “wild things.” This is a challenge on our over-landscaped school grounds. However, equipped with hand lenses, compasses and thermometers, we begin the search. Soon, a shout indicates someone has discovered something.
Questions come immediately. “Why doesn’t that spider bite you?” and “Do earwigs really eat out your brain?” Rewards follow, such as seeing amazement when a wet, cold honeybee fully revives after sticking its tiny tongue into a bit of sweet goo from an old candy wrapper.
We also hear “Oh, wow!” when children realize they can watch the gentle breathing of a garter snake as it winds itself around warm, little fingers, or discover the enlarged world of the binocular microscope. These are moments kids never forget.
Do you remember creating “forts”? How cool it was to hang out in the lashed-together treehouse made of cardboard or leftover plywood and old nails? Studies explain what is going on in their minds when kids tuck back into a safe place with a view outside. Mystery stimulates curiosity. The ability to watch without being seen gives children the opportunity to make sense of things, to create coherence.
More natural school grounds
City kids have less access to vacant lots and tangled creek banks, but they spend much of their young lives on school property. By my estimations, students may spend as much as 20 percent of their time on outdoor school grounds.
School districts today limit vegetation out of fear of a “predator-in-the-bushes.” We need to allow a more natural look to school landscaping, and encourage native vegetation.
We are headed in the right direction. It’s encouraging that six local schools have small native gardens adding beauty to their campuses. Some Portland schools have added small outdoor “refuges” to serve as study areas.
Statistics prove how costs of campus upkeep fall when schools do less mowing and use fewer chemicals without so many wide, green lawns. Also, air pollution caused by equipment decreases.
Kids need to trust themselves
Americans have always been innovative. It is time to show trust of kids and ourselves, and to place more value on children experiencing the natural world.
It is true, as always, that the only thing we really have to fear is fear itself. I believe, for the sake of the next generations of American children, it is time to push back the real monster.
Here is an opportunity to enjoy the satisfaction of solving several problems while encouraging the joy of the “untutored rascal” present in all kids.
Guest writer Laura McMasters is a professional naturalist and author of a book, “Kaleidoscope.” Her expertise in nature education, endangered species, botanical surveys and landscaping for wildlife has been recognized with conservation and education awards. She enjoys music, dancing, hiking and gardening. She is a lifelong resident of McMinnville. Her mother, scientist Dorothy McKey-Fender, is her neighbor.
Theresa Crain submitted photo
In McMinnville’s Lower City Park in 2010, children attending a free watershed stewardship program presented by McMinnville Library are checking Cozine Creek for aquatic life with leader Laura McMasters.
In 2012, Kids on the Block students from Newby Elementary embark on a Nature’s Ways outdoor science exploration. They are wearing vests with pockets containing the equipment they will need.