A trip to the outdoors opens children's minds

Childhood obesity rates are up. Scores on science exams are down. Parents and teachers worry that children lack empathy for others and for the planet.

While there is no panacea for these contemporary problems, introducing children to the natural world can help them be physically active, pique curiosity, foster empathy, and encourage stewardship.

I'm reminded of my own experience learning to fish at age 7. Catching fish may have been the purpose of my streamside ramblings, but as I grew older I became aware of the earth beneath my feet.

What was previously a cluster of unremarkable plants became distinguishable as rattlesnake, Long Beach, and Christmas ferns. The blur of orange and black, seen streamside in May, was transformed into the Blackburnian warbler. Short trips to my favorite fishing hole became long, meandering hikes in the woods.

Sharing outdoor experiences with children not only exercises the body, but stimulates the mind.

Edward O. Wilson, the eminent Harvard biologist, began making ant farms out of mason jars as a young child. Edward Ross, a California Academy of Sciences curator of entomology, had collected thousands of insects by the time he finished high school. Nobel Prize winner James Watson, who discovered the double helix of DNA, became interested in ornithology at an early age.

Arguments that urban environments have no opportunities for nature study are specious. An experiment determining which foods ants like best can be conducted on a blacktop or sidewalk. Feeders and birdhouses for English sparrows can be constructed with little money or open space. Trees or plants can be observed during different seasons.

What makes outdoor nature studies meaningful is giving the children authentic experiences. Before a field trip collecting bugs, children in my first-grade class posed questions like, "Can an earwig crawl in people's ears?" "How long can a worm stay underground?" and "How can an ant carry crumbs if it is so small?"

The expedition in the San Gabriel Mountains in Los Angeles not only answered these questions, but also provided the impetus for others.

A chance discovery of a scorpion under a rock was a great opportunity to learn about the differences between arachnids and insects. This was all the more meaningful because the children had collected bugs, smelled damp pine needles, and heard the pitched cry of a woodpecker.

Some parents are concerned about the lack of empathy in today's children. Educators and parents have observed a profound disconnect from the feelings of others and our planet.

Giving children experiences with nature and the outdoors can help develop empathy for our planet and for our fellow humans.

Experiences with wild animals can also help children develop empathy. When one understands that a frog needs to be touched gently with moist hands, this can be "transferred" to an understanding that one's peers also need to be handled with care. I've observed this phenomenon in my first-grade class.

After our ant farm was accidentally turned upside down and the ants perished, several children related to the experience by transferring the information. "How would you like it if somebody came to our classroom and turned it upside down?" asked one girl.

In the early 1990s, while working as an environmental educator for the Fresh Air Fund with inner-city youth, I noticed that the children who respected nature also respected their peers.

The key to successful outdoor experiences with children is found in our own spirit of adventure. Children repay an enthusiastic teacher with the dividends of curiosity and passion.

Don't be dismayed if children appear to have more interest in floating sticks in a mountain creek or stirring the mud of a city pond than in an adult agenda. A passion for the outdoors frequently has humble origins.

Seth Shteir is vice president of the San Fernando Valley Audubon Society in California and a teacher at the Children's Community School in Van Nuys, Calif.

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