Wild Child

What fears are separating children from nature? What happens when they reconnect?

When children first arrive at Rappahannock Nature Camp, they are afraid of bugs, the camp director, Lyt Wood, told me.

But, on the day I visited this summer, he opened up a hive of 30,000 honeybees while the children craned to see. The kids had brought long clothes and hats to camp for the occasion. They pulled netting over the rims of their hats and sealed their clothes at the wrists and ankles with blue tape. Wood doused the hive with smoke, then drew out frames that were packed with vibrating, crawling, humming bees.

Most of the insects clung, buzzing, to the frame, while others spun, like warnings, in the air around it. The kids leaned over a white cord boundary while Wood brought the bees to show them. “Look,” he said, as one stung his forearm. “See how its abdomen is pulsing?” The campers identified a fat drone in the mass of worker bees and Wood picked it out for them. “Who wants to hold it?”

Children examine a drone from a bee colony.The children momentarily froze. Then a boy volunteered, and then the children were passing around the stingless drone, enraptured. They were holding a live bee.

On the whole, these did not seem like children who were afraid of bugs — although there had been one incident of hysteria in the screen tent where kids who didn’t have protective clothing had gathered to see the bees. One child was distraught about sharing the tent with a spider.

The camp is held each year at Singing Creek, a wooded spot on the banks of the Hazel River as it runs out of the mountains. At camp, the children learn, among other things, how to capture moths, butterflies, crawdads, tadpoles, fish and other animals, observe them, and let them go without harming them. At the frog pond, one boy enthusiastically scooped out newts and salamanders with a net and made a show of kissing them. On an earlier visit, a beaming girl had showed me her cupped hands full of worms.

Wood told me, “We want them to feel at home on the planet Earth and not afraid of the world around them.”

Broadlands, a suburban neighborhood of over 3,000 homes near Dulles airport, in Loudoun County, is a place of large, close-set houses on cul-de-sacs, and of lush wetlands bursting with high grass and cattails. Here, Oya Simpson, like Wood in Rappahannock, is looking for ways to bring children in closer contact with nature — starting with her own young daughter and two teenage sons.

Her family chose their home in Broadlands because its yard adjoins a small marsh. So, when six year old Aylin plays on her swing, she sails toward a view of auburn-headed grasses growing taller than she is, rimmed by trees. Early in the morning, Simpson told me, in the dark and the first blue light, before the wide roads fill with traffic and more planes start to roar in and out of the airport, she can sit on their deck and just listen to birds fill the air with song.

When Broadlands was built, wetlands, nature trails, and a meandering park were woven into the design. Even so, Simpson said, it can be a challenge to find ways for kids to play outdoors in nature.

In most households, she said, the parents are busy working and commuting, so kids’ schedules are tied up too, with school and after-school programs, sports, camps, activities, vacations. And when the kids are home, their parents don’t want them roaming around outside. Parents are worried about dangerous strangers, Simpson said, and they’re afraid of their kids falling or getting hurt. She encounters parents’ anxieties when she takes kids from Aylin’s school on nature walks. The parents want to know, Are they going to get ticks?

Simpson, who has suffered from Lyme disease herself, said she tells them, “I can’t give you a hundred percent guarantee, but you can spray them and check them.” She added, “It’s not something you can control. You can’t put yourself in a prison.”

When her oldest son was a boy and they lived in a different suburb in northern Virginia, she said, the neighbors stopped him from climbing trees. Swinging up into the branches was considered unsafe, against the rules.
“I think we’ve sort of pushed our limits with being overly protective,” Simpson said.

So, yes, their neighborhood is laced with trails and woods, but children aren’t free to wander or explore them. Adults use the trails in structured ways, Simpson said; they go jogging or biking. “It’s not wondrous. It’s not the way children like to just go and play, to make forts and dig in the dirt. Here, if Aylin wants to go play outside, I think OK, there is the road. There is the lawn. Where is she going to go?”

As Diana Foster, a biologist and a teacher, was through-hiking the Appalachian Trail eleven years ago, following spring on its journey north, she was struck by her observation that there were few people of color sharing the trail with her. “I saw this void,” she told me, “and I wanted to know why.”

After she got home, to Charlottesville, she got involved with the Rivanna Trails Foundation, which builds and maintains hiking trails in the city, now a 20+ mile network of wooded trails, mostly along the floodplains of streams and the Rivanna River. At the same time, she started working with the local Boys & Girls Clubs, taking kids out on the trails and into natural areas near the city. She was looking for ways, she told me, “to make nature accessible to people who for many reasons would not choose to hike on a place that was not a paved sidewalk.”

As she walked with some of those people, she witnessed multi-generational fears being passed on to children — fears that could be rooted in histories of racial violence and survival in the forest, or fears that reflect the strangeness of this environment to immigrants from other countries. “I heard older people telling toddlers misconceptions about what would happen to them if they touched something green or they got off the sidewalk,” she said. “I decided I would like to work with very young children to try to break that cycle.”

Foster went on to create Forest Discoveries, a program that combines exploration of nature with science, writing, art, and character building. Partnering with the Boys and Girls Club, she brings multi-ethnic groups of children and teens out to woods on a regular basis.

The forest is engaging to children, which makes it a productive environment for teaching, she said. “The youngest ones are instantly fascinated by every new plant and animal. Older children initially tend to carry with them cultural biases such as a fear of bugs or an aversion to dirt, but within seconds of making discoveries and claiming them as their own, they are hooked.”

a young girl finds a birds nest“I see a honeybee!” Aylin announced, pointing at an insect that was hovering over a lamb’s ear blossom near their porch.
“It’s a bumblebee,” Simpson told her. “What is it doing?”
“Pollinating,” Aylin said.

One way for Simpson to connect her kids with nature — especially with a young child who can’t go far on her own — is to bring more nature close to the house. So, she’s converted sections of blank, mowed grass into gardens, where more natural activities are happening. Bees are gathering bright yellow pollen, adding it to caches on their sides like saddlebags. Plants, with pollinators’ help, are sprouting, growing, blooming, fruiting, dying and reseeding. Native plants, especially, draw an abundance of insects, providing food for the birds that sing each morning in anticipation of the sun.

In their side yard, Simpson has planted a grove of native trees, which eventually will drain into a rain garden, and she’s growing vegetables in containers on their deck. She also turned a patch of common area beside their house into a pollinator garden — a circle of robust native grasses and flowers, complete with a bench, a birdbath and two birdhouses. On the day Aylin and her mother showed me the garden, dozens of bees were buzzing over tall plants with stringy violet blossoms, and Aylin found a birds’ nest.

Now, Simpson, who chairs the neighborhood’s wildlife habitat committee, is spearheading efforts to create a larger pollinator garden in another common area — currently an empty lawn. She also helped to inspire a native plant garden at Aylin’s school. When she takes the young students out on nature walks, she said, she gives them basic lessons in ecology — why we need pollinators to help grow food, why we need woods and wetlands to filter water.

One day, Simpson told me, she saw a neighbor boy with his mother in the pollinator garden near their house and asked what they were up to. The boy had gotten a butterfly kit, she learned, so he could watch the creature morph through its larva and chrysalis stages and finally emerge with wings. He had come to the garden to release his full-fledged butterfly. “That kind of made my day,” Simpson said. “The kid was already acknowledging that the garden is there for that.”

Wood is running a nature camp in the country. Foster is building trails in the city. Simpson is starting pollinator gardens in the suburbs. All three are improving children’s proximity to natural places — getting kids to nature or nature to them. But they all talk about barriers between children and nature that go beyond geography.

On the first day of nature camp, Wood always asks the kids what they would be doing if they weren’t at Singing Creek, and the number one answer, he says, is playing video games. Whether the campers live in rural, mountainous Rappahannock or they’re visiting on summer vacation, many of them, he told me, do not regularly get outside. Some are in poor physical shape. They cannot concentrate. And they are afraid of bugs.

Wood’s assessment echoes the best-selling 2008 book, Last Child in the Woods, in which Richard Louv describes a pervasive “nature deficit disorder” among children, a trend that Louv connects to childhood obesity and attention deficit disorder, as well as threats to children’s overall well-being, including their resilience to emotional stress, their creativity, and their spiritual experience.

Numerous factors combine to alienate children from nature, including high-pressure schedules, rigid school curriculums, the allure of electronic entertainment, lack of neighborhood green space, and laws or rules that restrict play. Fear can be a major barrier — fear of abduction, accidents, litigation, insects, animals, or simply the uncontrolled outdoor world. But, Louv argues that time spent in nature can actually make children safer, because it builds their confidence and heightens their awareness of the world around them. A father of two, he writes, “Although we have plenty of reasons to worry about our children, a case can be made that we endanger our children by separating them too much from nature, and that… we make them safer, now and in the future, by exposing them to nature.”

Before anyone used the term “nature deficit disorder,” Wood was working to heal it, through the Rappahannock Nature Camp, which marked its 25th anniversary this summer. “I started the camp because I thought this is what is right for our time,” Wood told me. “And I thought that twenty-five years ago, but it’s even more appropriate for and relevant here and now in the U.S. of A in 2011, because of all the technology and the way society is going — the materialism, the lack of spirituality, the standardization. We need some kind of balance.”

Today’s kids grow up in a barrage of electronic images and standardized lessons, Wood said. “They get those things mixed up with the real world. What we’re trying to do is reconnect. We’re trying to get them to think independently and trust their own selves. And we’re also trying to reclaim their childhood, to let them be children. We let them run wild for a good part of the day.”

As the children with the Boys and Girls Club explore the wilderness in their backyards, in Charlottesville, they’ve contributed to a number of major projects. They collaborated with artists on an exhibit in the city’s largest art museum. They helped build an 18-foot bridge that opened up a walking trail. They took part in the planning process for Biscuit Run State Park, presenting a series of drawings that show their vision for the new public land.

And they grow. This is what Foster told me she sees children gain when they spend time in the woods:

“They learn a ton of science that they don’t quite realize at the time. They’re learning basic biological concepts, ecological concepts. They’re learning about their role in the forest community…. They are learning to be good stewards.

“But more importantly, they learn to trust themselves. The first thing we do is observe things, and they articulate what they have observed. And they learn that it’s okay to say whatever they have discovered… They’re not afraid to ask questions. They’re not afraid to make hypotheses about why things are happening. It’s a really good environment for teaching risk-taking.

“So they try new things. They’ll go outside. They will try to climb a tree. They will learn to balance on a fallen tree. They will learn how to balance on rocks to get over a stream… The kids learn that it’s okay to get wet — and dirty. That you can clean it off. Your shoes will dry. They learn to deal with cut knees, insect bites. They learn not to scream when a spider comes into view… They learn to say cool instead of yuck, and that is a big step.

“They learn to respect life. I took a group of twelve year old boys camping to James River State Park. It had been a rainy spring and we found lots and lots of red efts” — tiny newts the bright red-orange of a fall maple leaf. “There
were ten boys and the whole weekend, the boys were collecting these little animals and holding them, and not one boy made one statement about hurting that animal.”

Girls pretend to be trees This summer, the theme of the Rappahannock Nature Camp was community. The campers explored the cosmic community — stars and planets that influence the earth — by tracking the movement of sunspots, using a telescope equipped with a solar filter. They peered into microscopes to see the community of creatures on the move in a drop of pond water. They pondered the “invisible community” suggested by experiences we can’t explain, and speculated about the goings on of local puckwudgies. They investigated the communities that live in a bee hive, a hornets’ nest, a garden, a compost pile, a rotten stump, and the Hazel River. During an overnight campout, they experienced parts of the community that stay hidden until dark — observing the constellations of stars and the night sounds of animals. They talked about their camp community and what makes it work, as well as the Earth community and how they can make it better.

At the same time, the camp strengthens a sense of the individual self, Wood told me. These children in the woods are learning to experience the world with their own senses, to respond with feelings and ideas original to them.
The day I visited was the first day that the children would go the “quiet spots” that they had picked out and prepared, enhancing their chosen place with stick forts, or cushions of dry grass, or shells and stones as decorations. Wood instructed them: during Quiet Time, they could write or draw or just observe, but they couldn’t read or talk, and they should stay in their spots until they heard music in the forest. We walked silently in a line through the woods as a light rain sounded on the canopy of leaves, until each child found his or her spot.

Once Wood, playing a flute, had led them back to picnic tables, they shared their observations — they saw dragonflies, a turtle. One boy drew a picture of an imaginary animal. Another boy, who spent his Quiet Time lying on his back beside the river, told me that Quiet Time was his favorite part of camp.

A girl wrote this:

“As I sit here during Quiet Time listening, I listen very closely. What do I hear? The whisper of the trees, the talking river… The river has conversations with the breeze. Listen for a long time and become a part of the forest. Then you will say to yourself, ‘I should’ve started listening a long time ago!'”