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Nature’s Not a Destination, It’s as Close as Your Backyard

By — Nature Deficit Disorder Special Edition Contributor
Updated on May 17, 2010

Most parents think their children know an awful lot about nature and the environment, and for the most part, they do! Many elementary school-aged kids can talk about the rainforest and its importance as a habitat to some of the rarest animals on earth. Kindergarteners can explain the difference between endangered and extinct. Fourth graders know a lot about living green-they might even know about non-renewable resources and watersheds!

But ask children where they can see and experience nature and they'll likely respond with places like national parks, Alaska, or Florida. They might talk about webcams where one can see Bald Eagle nests live on the Internet. Ask them what they can do to help wildlife and they may suggest adopting an endangered animal or donating to an environmental organization.

Reasons Kids are Disconnected from Nature

Children's beliefs are often influenced by television shows that depict nature as something in exotic places and rife with danger. Today's kids do have more information about nature and the environment than we did at their age, but they also have little or no relationship with nature. Kids can tell you the names of endangered tree frogs but too few have ever found a frog in a local pond. Second grade classrooms raise and release Painted Lady butterflies but don't observe the Monarch caterpillars devouring milkweed on the edges of their own schoolyard.

Kids Need to Go Outside

Scientists have found that spending significant time in the outdoors helps build healthier immune systems in children. But few children are spending "significant" time in the outdoors these days and this is a loss not only to their immune systems but to their sense of place. We live in an increasingly homogeneous world where neighborhoods, cultures, foods, and languages blend into one look and sound. In many places and for many people, nature is what defines their sense of place through crucial markers like seasons, native plants, and landscape. Deprived of time in the outdoors, we are deprived of nature.

Wildlife is All Around Us

You may not realize it, but wildlife is close and accessible. In fact, it's practically knocking at our doors. Non-domesticated animals are adapting to the changing landscape by finding new or different shelters, places to nest, sources of food, and paths for movement and migration. We witness these adaptations every time we see bears, raccoons, or crows raid our trashcans. Skunks raise their young under unsuspecting suburban homeowners' front doorsteps-often the last shelter in a newly altered landscape. Deer eat the expensive shrubs we plant in our new neighborhoods. Squirrel and possum carcasses litter our roads as animals try to navigate their changing landscape. My point is this:. We face many problems living this close to wildlife, but we also have more opportunity to observe.

When a butterfly lands in our hand, it etches an indelible memory in the heart and mind. When a simple walk turns into a chance meeting with a doe and her young, it registers a magic moment forever. When we see a Peregrine Falcon dive over 200 miles per hour from the top of a tall city building to snag a pigeon in mid-air, that breathless moment generates a new sense of awe and awareness of our natural environment. These are everyday nature encounters and they help define some of the most exciting and also some of the quietest and most intimate moments of our lives, creating memories to last a lifetime.

Nature is Not a Destination

  • So, parents, show your children that nature is not a destination. Take them to observe nature-simply step outdoors.
  • Go tracking in the snow.
  • Look for nests in bare trees. 
  • Hang a bird feeder. 
  • Purchase field guides to identify the plants and animals in your yard and neighborhood. 
  • Take walks for exercise but slow down during a part of your walk for the sheer pleasure of observing nature. 
  • Listen to the sounds and the silence of nature. 
  • Stop and smell the air.
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