If there’s one thing you can’t complain about in the State of Florida (although some would disagree), it’s the weather. Even our recent two-day winter was good for a laugh, and the cozy, unaccustomed feel of a wool sweater against the skin. And today, we’re back to the high 70s and sunny, the kind of day that puts a smile on the faces of winter-weary travelers and cash into the local economy.
It’s the sort of day that has me wondering why kids raised in the Sunshine State spend so much time indoors, eyes locked onto their screens and favorite video games (many of them violent). It’s the always-on culture, you might say, addictive behavior modeled by parents and peer group alike. You could blame the irrational, media-fueled fear of just about everything, from hidden perverts or kidnappers in the neighborhood to vaccinations. By now you’ve read about scientists, Danielle and Alexander Meitiv, in trouble with the law because they allowed their children, age 6 and 10, to play in a local park and walk home unescorted. Here’s a thoughtful piece from The Daily Beast: http://www.thedailybeast.com/articles/2015/02/15/free-range-kids-are-healthier.html. So were things ‘safer’ for kids back in the day when I sent my 14-year-old son to school in New York City by commuter bus and subway, and my 10-year-old daughter happily walked with friends a few blocks to her classroom? Statistically, no.
Whether it is due to benign neglect or parental control on steroids, living under a rock is bad for kids and bad for the rest of us, too. We can’t expect children to love the world and want to preserve it if their only experience of it is a mediated one. Test this out for yourself. What’s better? Adventure travel or a television show about it? So kudos to Lenore Skenazy of Free Range Kids, (How to Raise Safe, Self-Reliant Children Without Going Nuts With Worry), the Boy Scouts and Girls Scouts of America, and the new White House initiative to get kids reacquainted with nature in our National Park System. http://www.whitehouse.gov/blog/2015/02/19/let-s-get-every-kid-park. Yes!
And, although I’m basing this on my own observations and instincts as a grandmother (a relatively tiny sample), small children are ready for the real thing. They dig dirt, given half a chance. They know BS when they encounter it. They are naturally wild and free. They like to hang out in trees. They want the freedom to skateboard home from school long before they get a license to drive a car. They want to fix their own snacks, as unusual as their tastes may seem to my palate. An entire pomegranate? Sure. Broccoli sandwiches, barbecue sauce on pizza? Why not?
And I think they are hungry for adults who are giving them their full attention. So let me describe my class in pollination, organized for the elementary grade children and part of their religious education (you bet!) I came prepared with some visual aids from the fabulous Xeces Society, and I had brought some pollinator nests fashioned from bamboo sections, string, and a couple of ready-made birdhouses. Apparently, insects like every other form of life, need rest and respite.
The first thing I noticed was how happy these kids were to be outside, sitting on the grass, looking around, breathing fresh air. Maybe more classes should be held outdoors. Each wanted to be the first to answer my question: What did you have for breakfast? Eggs, fried cheese, cereal, fruit. And they were attentive when I explained how pollinators like bees and other insects, birds and bats interact with plants, and how that contributes to the food we eat. School age kids have been trained, like puppies, to stay even when clearly, they’d rather be moving their bodies. I was grateful that there were no hand-held devices in evidence (perhaps it’s a rule), except for a camera, and that for the most part, they made eye contact with me.
But they really wanted to run around, chase each other, and climb trees and even the AC equipment (until called down). I corralled them into the raised vegetable bed area by saying they could pick anything they promised to eat. That’s when the religious education class really came alive. Even the camera-toting boy who said he hates tomatoes and didn’t want to know they are the main ingredient for ketchup, was in. Cherry tomatoes, beans, Swiss chard, all enthusiastically sampled and pronounced good. Maybe they’ll remember what just-picked vegetables warmed by the sun taste like. Perhaps it will inform their own choices when they grow up. I know I will remember their bright faces in that moment.
It’s experiences like these that reinforce my conviction that we must stop forcing our kids into our narrow views of what success in life looks like. We could be wrong, especially in the future many scientists foresee. We need to nourish their imaginations and sense of wonder about the Earth and all life. We need to get kids back into the woods and swimming holes, into tents under starry skies, cooking over campfires, on hiking trails and whitewater rafts, where they can discover what they are capable of. We need to let them learn, to paraphrase poet, Theodore Roethke, by going where they have to go.
Possibly, this is a lesson we could all use. See Guardian columnist and author of Feral, George Monbiot’s Civilization is Boring. And my future blog posts on re-wilding.