For Earth Day 2016, the Wildlife SNPits scientists wrote a series of daily blogs on easy things you can do to help the environment. One of the topics I wrote about was taking kids outside. It’s not the most intuitive thing you’d think of when helping Mother Earth, but this little act makes a really big difference. This year, after attending the Children & Nature Network Conference, I am convinced this is the single most important thing you can do for the earth.
It’s clear from attending that the Children & Nature Network is more than a meeting, it is a global movement (#NatureForAll). The goal is simple, to get kids outside. But the challenges we face with this simple task are surprisingly great based on how most of us live our lives. As someone who cares about conservation, this should concern you. Luckily, the solutions are easy, and fun.
Dr. Scott Sampson, President & CEO of Science World British Columbia and host of Dinosaur Train particularly drove home this point well. He stated, if you were to ask conservationists what was the most issue of our time, what would they say? We can assume the answers would vary between climate change, habitat loss, the accumulation of plastics or toxins, but the truth is – it doesn’t matter. If people don’t care about nature, they won’t care about any of these issues.
We are currently raising generations of kids disconnected from, even scared of nature. Think about why you are interested in nature or wildlife – what did it take? When asking my ecologist colleagues, they will all tell you about an experience they had outdoors – digging through soil, flipping over rocks looking for insects, or catching frogs. Sampson asked us to think of a place we loved as a child. He does this at lots of speaking engagements and no matter what type of audience he speaks to, 90+% of the people think of a place that is in nature. If these experiences are lost, children won’t develop the emotional connections necessary for them to care about nature, which means as future voting adults, they won’t try to protect it. Sampson reiterated this point with the results of the most recent U.S. presidential election, where the consequences became shockingly clear. He said “State and national parks are not innately protected. Every generation decides to keep protecting them.” Waiting until kids become adults is often too late, as world views are formed and emotional connections are harder to develop.
What I really loved about this meeting was the hopeful future the speakers presented. So often conservationists, scientists, and popular culture as a whole perpetuates the myth that our future is headed towards an apocalypse. If this is the image we present, why would anyone be motivated to protect nature? Yes, human population is increasing and cities will become bigger, but this doesn’t mean they can’t be greener and better. We will most certainly will lose species and biodiversity will decrease, but this will happen despite our cities being full of cement or life.
Connecting kids to nature is surprisingly simple. As a child, some of my most profound experiences took place in the extremely landscaped patches of non-native plants along our entry way, just feet outside of our suburban house. I would flip over decorative rocks and stepping stones looking for isopods (potato bugs), centipedes, and earthworms with my dad. My dad wasn’t a scientist; in fact, my parents didn’t even go to college. I wasn’t in Yellowstone National Park. I was in my driveway. Author of Last Child in the Woods, Richard Louv emphasized this exact point; we have to stop seeing nature as some pristine, far away place. He said “To give every child the opportunity to connect, we must find nature nearby. You don’t have to go far…nature is there for you.”
Gil Penalosa of the 8-80 Cities initiative stressed the need to increase access to nature where most people live, in cities. He gave example after example of cities across the world that had converted abandoned parking lots, railroad tracks, and streets into parks and play spaces. Adding small gardens and objects near bus stops can give kids the opportunity to explore and wonder while they wait. Cities are not the enemy. Cities are now where most people live and they can be filled with many green spaces, both large and small. He recommended we all go to our town meetings and ask for more green spaces. I know I will.
In addition to access, it also takes a mentor. This may be your own kids, nieces, nephews, grandkids, or neighbors. I don’t have kids or family here, but I have been volunteering at the Raleigh Boys Club and helping with their nature club. Now that it is warm, I want to start organizing activities outside. Having worked alongside educators over the past five years, I was starting to think of these experiences in the context of classroom learning and wanting my excursions to align to science concepts with creative lesson plans. Going to the Children & Nature Network conference really made me realize how much I was overthinking it. These kids just need someone to take them outside and explore. In fact, Sampson mentioned the importance of not telling kids the answers. Let the child ask questions and turn them back on the child. What does that animal eat? What do you think? How do you know? Let’s watch it to see.
While the conference focuses on kids, I know us adults are also deficient in vitamin N. Even if you don’t care about nature, being in nature offers you important health benefits. I suffered from migraines for a long time and was frustrated going to doctors being prescribed medication x to find out it worked for a few months, then get used to it, and switch to medication y. I started seeing a functional medicine doctor to get to the root cause. Part of my treatment was to go outside. Going outside gives you vitamin D (which I and many others are deficient in), helps to set your circadian rhythm to improve sleep, and is inversely correlated with stress and mental health disorders. Before the conference started, I had two long days in nature; one was hours boating on the open water to view orcas, seals, and bald eagles, and the other was hiking through a (surprisingly suburban) Pacific rainforest, moving slowly and taking inventory of the plants, birds, and invertebrates. I feel better, refreshed, and inspired. When I get back, on my dog walks, I’m going to move more slowly and look more closely. I’m going to sign up for iNaturalist and eBird and start documenting the nature I see through citizen science. I’m going to flip over rocks and I am going to bring a child with me.