1. Our Forests Are DisappearingOne major issue is simply access. Before European settlement, forests in the United States covered nearly 1,000 million acres. A squirrel could travel from the Atlantic coast to the Mississippi River without touching the ground! Today, although approximately 2/3 of our forests remain, they are severely fragmented (relative to the past), owned by diverse groups, and their ecology significantly altered (~3% have not been commercially logged). Yes, there are preserves, state parks, national forests, and nature centers, but for most children gone are the days of running outside to play in the woods near the house.
2. Our Kids Are Too BusyChildren have on average 3.5 hours a day of homework to complete despite numerous studies on the pitfalls. Between that, extracurricular activities and concentrated screen time, there are just not enough hours in the day for kids to spend out in nature. Three different children who have come to our property in the last year have been legitimately afraid of the grass underneath their bare feet. For a small percentage that has to do with texture, but for most it's as simple as not having enough exposure to it.
3. The Forest Has an Image ProblemFrom the time we're little, we're introduced to images of the haunted unknowable woods. In Beauty and the Beast, Belle gets attacked by wolves when she rides off into the forest. Hansel and Gretel fair no better. The forest is the place where the goblin dances around the fire and the bodies are buried. These associations amplify our instinctual fear of the dark woods and obscure its many wondrous aspects.
4. Dirt PhobiaDespite numerous studies that tie playing in the dirt to creating stronger immune systems in our children, we're still a germ obsessed nation. The idea of allowing their kids to roll around in the mud, bugs, poop and piles of God knows what is not exactly a high priority on most parents' list. That phobia transfers to the kids making it really difficult to experience uninhibited, free play.
5. What They Don't Know Can Hurt ThemMost children don't know the names of trees that surround them every day, much less can be expected to comprehend the network of interdependent organisms that exist in the forest. Even something as simple as identifying an owl that sounds off in the darkness can transform fear into curiosity. Education can help children form a language and construct to the wilder world. Our curriculums need to include an immersive environmental education component - one that goes beyond dissecting a frog in Biology lab and growing plants in a cup on the windowsill.
6. The Disconnected LifeIt was only recently that I have come to rely on the forest in a more obvious way. We're blessed to have some of our firewood and food come from the woods that surrounds us. Relying on it in this way and seeing how intimately it is connected to our every day life, brings us closer to the woods and helps my daughter Cora cultivate feelings of gratitude towards the woods rather than fear. What chance does the reality of nature have against kids who don't see it reflected in any aspect of their every day lives?
7. We're Not Doing itA study of American adults published in 2008 found us spending 25 percent less time in parks, forests or hunting and fishing than in 1987. About the same time, a survey of adult activity levels found that two-thirds spend more than two hours a day watching TV or videos. I am not casting blame here because it was only relatively recently that I've made weekly forest walks a priority. Even with the woods in our backyard, my instinct was to stick to our graveled driveway and the open areas near the house. Demonstrating and sharing our joy, curiosity and willingness to adventure in is the best way to transfer a love of nature to our kids.
8. They Don't Want ToThe forest is so 1980. Truth is, many kids just don't want to go outside anymore. Most children won't willingly trade the instant gratification that gaming, television and texting provides for a hike in the woods. In a study of 2,000 parents, 43% say their children would rather watch television than go outside to play with friends, while another 42% prefer to play computer games. Parents also said their children would rather surf the internet and listen to music, with almost one in ten claiming their offspring would even choose to do their homework over venturing out of the house.
9. Got Skillz?"You know, like nunchuck skills, bo hunting skills...girls only like guys who have great skills." Let's face it, our kids are amazingly social and technical, but most really lack in the survival skills department. Fear manifests partly from a feeling of unpreparedness. And who wouldn't be afraid in the face of plants you won't touch, spiders you can't name, mushrooms you don't dare eat, no sense of direction. Oh and also you are wearing sandals and forgot water. I personally know what it is to be in the forest and feel like this - it takes a lot even for an adult to get more knowledge and keep going back in.
10. Our Kids Are Out of ShapeAccording to the Center For Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), 17% (or 12.5 million) of kids and adolescents aged 2 - 19 years in the United States are now obese. Most overweight kids are not going to willingly put themselves in a position where they are going to be physically struggling. Hiking can be demanding, and it's so much easier to click a mouse than chase one.
The goods news is that unlike many other social issues, reversing these trends is straight forward. Just get out there together! And no, I don't always feel like bundling Cora up and hiking through the woods. Once we're in the forest together though something extraordinary happens. Then the only difficult part is when it's time to go back to the house and leave the magic behind.
Thanks for walking with me!
Your Woman Gone Wild,