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Last Children in the Woods?

witch hazel 1“I’m not afraid of snakes any more,” six-year-old Morgan declared.

After spending a rainy day indoors with adults glued to computers and/or movies, she was ready to go outside. Remembering previous visits when I had taken her on walks, she knew that I was the adult she needed to impress.

And I was impressed. She had been visiting us since shortly after her birth to my niece Heidi and her husband Jeff. Heidi had her own happy memories of visiting here and playing with her three cousins when she was a child, and she wanted Morgan to have similar memories. But instead of playmate cousins her own age, she had me.

At first, she had been fearful of going beyond our veranda. Then I had shown her, one spring, a nest of eastern phoebes in our garage and another in the springhouse. To reach the latter, we had to walk through tall grasses that were as high as her shoulders, but after her first brave venture, tightly holding my hand, she lost her fear. From then on, whenever she visited, the first place she wanted to see was the springhouse.

She also learned that getting muddy was not only allowed but fun one hot summer day. Our granddaughter Eva was visiting, and I agreed to take the girls wading in the stream. Once again, Morgan held back but Eva, who is four years older, plunged in and encouraged Morgan to do likewise. As I watched from the stream bank, they spent happy hours trying to build a dam of rocks and mud.

Then, shortly after she turned six, she started asking me to take her on walks. She quickly learned that I would let her lead, and I would follow, which was as close to unstructured play outside as I could allow. Like most young children today, she is closely guarded due to what Richard Louv, author of Last Child in the Woods, calls “fear of stranger-danger.” He goes on to say in a recent article in Orion magazine that, “conditioned by round-the-clock news coverage, they [parents] believe in an epidemic of abductions by strangers, despite evidence that the number of child-snatchings (about a hundred a year) has remained roughly the same for two decades, and that the rates of violent crimes against young people have fallen to well below 1975 levels.”

Elanor at the big birchAs a mother of three boys in the 1970s, I didn’t worry that much about stranger-danger, although I did give them the usual talk about taking rides with strangers. Because of our unique situation — living on an isolated mountaintop — I could send them outside on their own, and I did.

In the 1950s, I was raised in a south New Jersey town, and my mother, even though she gave us the “rides with strangers” talk, allowed us freedom few parents would dream of today. I often led platoons of neighborhood kids on hikes in the extensive tract of woods and lakes at the end of our road. My younger siblings built tree houses in those same woods, and one brother spent most of his time fishing in the lakes. But sadly, those woods were razed for housing developments the year I left for college. This loss of wild habitat and, more recently, even vacant lots close to neighborhoods, is another reason why few children play outside on their own today. In some cases, housing developments, where many children live, have become virtual prisons with every backyard fenced and the children confined within it.Worst of all, though, is what the Nature Conservancy, in a recent study, calls “videophilia,” which they define as “the new human tendency to focus on sedentary activities involving electronic media,” i.e. television, home movie theaters, and computers. As one suburban fifth grader told Louv, “I like to play indoors better ’cause that’s where all the electrical outlets are.”

Well, Morgan has plenty of electrical outlets in her life. So do our granddaughters Eva and Elanor. But all three prefer to be outdoors. And luckily all three have several adult mentors interested in nurturing their natural biophilia, defined as an innate love of nature.

logSo on that overcast, damp day in early September, Morgan and I set off in late morning for a walk down the road. Her waist-long, straight golden hair reminded me of Alice in Wonderland illustrations, only Morgan’s wonderland was our mountain.

She wanted desperately to climb up the road bank and off trail, as she had on previous walks with me, but her flimsy shoes were not waterproof. Despite staying on the road, though, her shoes and socks were quickly soaked through.

A quarter mile down the road at the forks where our deceased neighbor Margaret’s road meets ours, we stopped to watch the stream as it flowed beneath our plank bridge.

“Can’t I wade in the stream?” she asked.

But it was too cold, and her thin, pink, pedal pushers and light jacket barely kept her warm. She didn’t complain, though.

Suddenly I noticed what looked like a large growth on a dead garlic mustard stem, but instead it was a woodland snail. For once, nature repeated itself. The snail emerged from its shell as I held it and climbed over my fingers just as one had done many years ago when our sons were young.

We rushed back to the house to show it to Cousin Dave so he could photograph it. At first, Morgan was hesitant to let the snail climb on her hand until her father Jeff set the example. Then she offered her hand, and the snail slid over it.

Morgan with snailAfter the photo session, we returned the snail to where we had found it, and then walked up the steeper driveway that led to Margaret’s derelict house because Morgan wanted to climb up hills, this Jersey child from the flat lands.

I started turning over rocks on the road bank in search of insects and salamanders. But Morgan turned over a rock in the middle of the driveway, a most unlikely place to find anything, or so I thought. Then she exposed a sluggish, cold, mountain dusky salamander.

“Oh, it’s cute. Can I hold it?” Morgan begged in contrast to her earlier hesitancy toward the snail.

I’ve never yet known a child who didn’t instantly like salamanders. I picked it up and handed it to her, and she held it gently for a few minutes before we replaced it under the rock where she had found it.Next, I uncovered red ants guarding their eggs, always a fascinating find for youngsters. I also showed her a Daddy-long-legs or harvestman on a grass stem and showy, gold and black locust borers on goldenrod. As we wended our way homeward across First Field, she was especially excited to see a monarch butterfly because she had been learning about their migration in her kindergarten class.

After lunch, I dug out a pair of rubber boots that Eva had outgrown. They fit Morgan perfectly. We packed a bag of snacks, and with Dave’s old camping pad under my arm, we headed up to the spruce grove to play “camping out.” During a spring visit, Morgan had discovered the joy of playing house there, accompanied by her ever-compliant great aunt. Then she had imagined a kitchen and bedroom. I had reclined in the latter while she covered herself and me with fallen spruce needles. She also molded those needles into a variety of household items.

On this autumn day, she had hoped to find her “house” just as she had left it five months earlier, but time and weather had altered it. Still, she enjoyed lying on the camping pad, peering out through an opening in the densely packed spruces, and eating her snacks.

snail 6Later, we walked to the “store,” outside the grove, and passed an Allegheny mound ant hill, which had a few sluggish black and red ants working on it. At the “store,” in the deciduous woods, we found brilliant orange bracket fungi clinging to a dead tree. Their glow seemed to lighten up what had remained a stubbornly overcast day. Impressed by their beauty, Morgan wanted to take one home and show her parents. As she pulled a fungus off the tree, she squeezed it, and water oozed out like a sponge. The orange also stained her hands.

“This must be what the Indians used to paint their faces,” she said.

On our way back down First Field, I pointed out both bear and coyote scat, and she proudly found more coyote scat on her own. I also told her we had hiked two miles altogether, which was quite an achievement for what used to be a timorous little girl.

Later, over the Christmas holidays, Morgan confidently led her eleven-year-old California cousin Courtney up First Field to the spruce grove and remained the “in-charge” nature person throughout Courtney’s visit. I can only hope that my mentoring, and that of several other adults in Morgan’s life, will help her to remain connected to the outdoors throughout her lifetime.

After all, “research indicates,” ecologist Patricia Zaradic says, “that children who experience nature with a mentor develop an appreciation of nature as adults.” For that reason, it is important that all of us who love nature and the outdoors should be mentoring our young relatives and friends. I know from experience with our three sons that such mentoring leads to a lifelong commitment to conservation and an abiding interest in the natural world.

in the woods

Postscript: People around the country have been rallying behind a no-child-left-inside campaign, according to Richard Louv, the ground-breaking author of Last Child in the Woods: Saving Our Children from Nature-Deficit Disorder. In his book, he quotes James Sallis of the Active Living Research Program for the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation who says that “an indoor, sedentary childhood is linked to mental health problems.” It is also linked to problems with childhood obesity. Louv was one of three speakers at the Governor’s Outdoor Conference that was held in State College, Pennsylvania in March. Policy makers, business representatives, sportsmen’s groups, conservation organizations, and representatives of the health and education sectors gathered to talk about ways to connect citizens of the commonwealth to nature. This led to public meetings in Erie, Harrisburg, Philadelphia, Pittsburgh, and Scranton in late spring where concerned citizens voiced their own ideas and recommendations.

The conference attendees want to address the following statistics: (1) According to the Kaiser Foundation, in 2005 the average United States child spent six hours a day watching television and playing video games on a computer. (2) Most state and national parks report a ten to 20% drop in visitors over the past few years. (3) The organization “Playing for Keeps” says that 80% of children under age two and more than 60% of ages two to five have no access to daily outdoor play. (4) Hunting license sales in Pennsylvania have declined by more than 11% between 1995 and 2005. Fishing license sales are also down from 1.1 million in 1991 to 833,000 in 2006.

For more information about the conference, visit www.connectoutdoors.state.pa.us.
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Web-only bonus: Here’s a video Dave shot on our barn bank earlier this month, when we had a couple of young visitors. (For background, see his post Chasing dragons.)


All photos in this post were taken (by Dave) on our mountain, though only the fourth and fifth ones actually depict Morgan. Mouse-over the photos to read the titles, and click on them to view at larger sizes.

9 thoughts on “Last Children in the Woods?

  1. That was a great story! Morgan and I enjoyed seeing the pictures and reading the tales of her adventures. I could see her re-living them in her head as though it all happened only yesterday. We are lucky that we have you, Bruce and David to foster Morgan’s ever growing love of nature!!!

  2. I’m glad you liked it, Heidi and Morgan. Now, I hope you are ready to do some rock-flipping tomorrow for International Rock-Flipping Day.

    Mike, thanks for your comments. I’m glad you are interested in the links too.

  3. I found several that I liked. One titled “citizen science” brought me to the Great Backyard Bird Count. My children love identifying birds, but unfortunately I only know a few species so our birding abilities are somewhat limited. This site was filled with great information. Again, thanks much!

  4. Pingback: Via Negativa » Blog Archive » IRFD 3: Plummer’s Hollow Run

  5. What a wonderful experience for Morgan over the last few years. I appreciate the time you took with Devon this weekend sharing your love of nature and teaching him some new things. It’s all he has talked about. Dev has already hit Heidi up for another trip the next time they visit. LOL.

  6. Mike,

    I’m glad you found more info to your liking.

    Jenn,

    It was a pleasure to host Devon. Tell him that Morgan’s Gram will be bringing back his deer leg bone that he forgot.

  7. This is such a nice account of a day spent with children exploring nature. I’m sure that Morgan will grow up with a greater appreciation for the outdoors.

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