Pack your backpacks, canoes and kayaks folks, because more than 100 National Parks that usually charge an entrance fee will be free April 21-29, 2012 to celebrate National Park Week! What a great excuse to get the family out the door and exploring. Check out the National Parks website for a complete list of participating parks.
Do video games and increased screen time signal the impending death of childhood in our society? What happens when children are deprived of outdoor play in nature? These questions are tackled in the new documentary film “Play Again“, by Ground Productions, which is currently being screened around the country. I’m hoping it will come close to my town so I can see it soon, rather than having to wait for it to come out on Netflix. I’ve enjoyed the small clips I’ve seen so far, and was particularly chilled by some footage that shows 3 and 4-year-old kids identifying commercial logos, like Apple and XBox, but unable to do the same for a single type of plant.
It sometimes feels like an enormous battle to try and fight against the intense commercialization of childhood. We really limit what the kiddo sees in terms of television, even so-called “educational” programs, because we are trying to set habits that will lead him away from situations where he’ll watch program after program and commercial after commercial. However, we already notice that he is drawn to the screens. Sean and I are both borderline computer-holics during the week, and often spend our evenings working on our respective projects. Already we see our son trying to imitate us, grabbing at the laptop, and the remote control, and reaching for our glowing cell-phones. We will most likely have to look at limiting our own project work time to after he is in bed in order to be better role models for screen-free time. But this is our culture, and we aren’t quite sure how to walk away from it. I know that he will have friends and go other places where he’ll watch shows and play games we don’t like, and he’ll be influenced by friends to buy-buy-buy. It’s a tricky situation. We will try to counter it as much as possible with time outside, time spent creating and imagining and exploring in the woods fields and shorelines we are lucky enough to have access to.
There is a memorable quote in the clip above from the director of the Nature Conservancy, “What they do not value, they will not protect, and what they do not protect, they will lose.” THIS is the reason we do what we do, why we get outside every chance, and bring the kiddo out into the backyard to roll on the grass, and into the mountains, despite the snow and mud and bugs. This is why we will pack him into a canoe and paddle him all over the northeast, even before he can walk: the enduring hope that he will learn to value and protect the natural world around him, despite the odds.
Here is a longer clip from the film:
I’ve seen this article , published by the UK newspaper The Daily Mail, popping up all over the place on the internet lately, and it always makes me pause. The article describes a report published by Natural England and the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds that looks at the distance from home that subsequent generations of children were allowed to wander on their own. As you can see in the illustration, which shows the range of children in four generations of the same family, kids today are lucky to be able to wander a few hundred yards from their own front doors, compared to the range of several miles that their great-grandparents were allowed.
This hits home. Every time I think about my own son and where I’ll allow him to go, I wonder if I can manage to be as permissive as I want to be. As a child, I lived in a rural setting surrounded by fields and woods. I often wandered by myself in our own yard and the hayfields bordering it. As I got older, I rode my bike a few miles to friends’ houses, or went on long nature walks into the woods near my home. Now, my family lives in a more suburban environment with a lot of traffic. I can’t say I’m comfortable with the kiddo wandering very far on his own. If we lived in a wilder place I would want him to have the kinds of adventures I did, but it still makes me nervous.
In Last Child in the Woods, Richard Louv documented research that showed that the dangers of children being abducted or molested have not increased in the last 50 years, but the media hype associated with them has, and this is one of the main reasons parents restrict children’s movements. I would add concern about injury and getting lost to this, even though I know that as a kid I rarely lost my way, and only sustained minor injuries during my wanderings. But what if can be a nerve-wracking thought.
Where we live is not very kid-friendly. There is a playground within walking distance, but to get there you have to cross a busy road. There are no sidewalks. A lot of other parks in our area have rules about how old children have to be to go there by themselves, and I expect I’d get a call from the police if I let my son play on his own. Our society has created so many barriers to children’s’ freedom, it seems like fighting a losing battle. I think my family is going to have to set some priorities, and decide if the convenience of our current location is enough. I think we are going to have to head to the woods if we want the kiddo to have the same kinds of independent experiences we had when we were young.
I’ll admit it, though it will send shudders down the spines of all my teleskiing fanatic friends: winter is not my favorite time of year. I can appreciate it in small bursts. I love the crystalline beauty of a morning following a storm, and spent many hours as a kid playing in the frosty woods behind my house, following the tracks of field mice to see where they went, always hoping to see evidence of wildlife drama. I tried winter mountaineering, but that ended after one weekend outing where my eyelids froze shut. So nowadays I’ll bundle up to take the kiddo for walks, or hit the beach for some ice bocce, or get excited about our annual xc skiing weekends, but other than that, I’m dreaming of summer.
This is where the New England Aquarium comes in. Right before New Year’s we decided to brave the icy weather and head south to the aquarium to introduce the kiddo to some fish. To beat the crowds, we got there right as the doors opened at 9am, which meant that we had a good two hours until the perfect storm of Liam’s attention span and the overcrowding of a winter break weekday hit. In that time, we watched the kiddo become fascinated by the silvery fish zipping past him. He also seems to have developed a bit of a penguin obsession.
Oh, and the best part? Now they have a shark and ray touch tank. Frankly, this part was all about me. Liam’s fingers are far too little to dangle in a touch tank, but mine sure weren’t. Rays are rather slimy, but still pretty darn cool.
Unfortunately, we don’t live in the wilderness. We are lucky, however, that our yard links up with some large fields and the remnants of old family farms to form a green corridor rich enough to support foxes, wild turkey, woodchucks, rabbits, coyotes, and, as we discovered this spring when our apple trees were nearly chewed to bits, deer. Except for the deer, who were not welcomed by Sean the apple farmer, we are happy to be able to hear the occasional yipping fox late at night, and to watch the rabbits hopping around when we go for walks in local conservation lands. We’ve tried to encourage most wildlife in the yard, and have hung birdfeeders, beehouses and bat boxes to encourage natural pollinators and help the migrators along their routes.
This year we knew we’d be pressed for time to tend to the extensive vegetable gardens we usually grow, so we decided to turn one of our large garden spaces into a wildflower garden that could help support the local bee/bird/butterfly population. All summer, the garden has been alive with activity. I’ve seen hummingbirds sparring over choice blossoms, goldfinches going crazy on the coreopsis seedheads, and bees and butterflies flitting about by the dozens. The sunflowers will provide seeds for the birds to eat come autumn, and to re-seed the garden for next year’s crops, and the milkweeds will provide a valuable food source for several life stages of Monarch Butterflies.
This 200 foot square piece of yard has literally been buzzing all summer, and we’ve been thrilled to watch the tiny insect dramas playing out among the plants. While Liam is too little to fully appreciate the garden right now, as he grows I imagine we’ll spend time learning about the butterfly life cycle as we watch it play out in front of us, track bees across the yard and talk about the physics of hummingbird flight.
Lately, I’ve noticed the subject of kids and adventure sports has been appearing with more regularity in the magazines and websites I visit. I think this is great, and hope it signals a trend towards understanding and encouraging independence in kids and a move away from the culture of fear that has been present in America for the last few decades.
Recently, Outside Magazine got in on the game with its Father’s Day issue. In typical Outside Magazine fashion, the series tends to lean a little heavy toward what gear to buy rather than how to actually get kids on the trail, but it’s great to see more mainstream magazines encouraging folks to seek adventure with little ones, rather than championing overprotective parenting. Check out their tips and recommendations for how to become an Adventure Dad here.
Around the full and new moons in May and June, a strange phenomenon occurs all up and down the Atlantic Shores of the US: the spawning of the horseshoe crabs. Sean and I first discovered this event about 8 years ago when we set off on an evening paddle to watch the full moon rise over a nearby bay. As we paddled close to shore, we noticed piles of horseshoe crabs in the shallows and along the beach. On closer inspection, we realized they were mating, and thus began our fascination with these strange prehistoric animals. Where we go we’ll often see a dozen or two mating pairs in a single trip, but there are places where the crabs are more abundant, and hundreds of pairs pile up on the beach.
Horseshoe crabs look ancient, and in fact their origins predate most species on the planet. These living fossils are covered in spiny body armor and have a long, spike-like tail that they use for righting themselves if they become flipped upside-down. During Mating, the male clings to the females back, and they stay linked for hours. The female will then dig a hole in sand or mud, and the male will fertilize the 60-120,000 eggs as she lays them. These eggs are an important food for at least 11 species of migratory shorebirds, as well as many other small shore animals. After mating, the male and female separate, and head off into deeper waters.
The mating of the horseshoe crabs is a great natural event to look for with kids. The crabs themselves are fascinating with their spiny armour and long spiked tail, and the presence of so many in one place can be awe-inspiring. Add in some moonlight and an expedition that involves flashlights, and the event becomes even more fun. It’s also a great chance to show kids how to observe nature without touching (and potentially disturbing a special moment for the crabs). If you are doing nature journaling with your kids, this is an exciting observation to write about.
If you want to find popular spawning locations near you, the University of Delaware’s Horseshoe Crab Spawning Website has a great page with an interactive map that will help you plan your trip. I particularly like their tip about using a red filter on flashlights and camera flashes when doing night observations to avoid blinding the animals for an entire tidal cycle.
I’m a big fan of nature documentaries in general, and BBC Nature productions in particular, so was excited when I stumbled across this clip from the new BBC series Human Planet. The clip shows very young kids in Venezuela foraging for tarantulas to grill up for snacks. Of course, these tarantulas are among the most poisonous spiders in the world, with long fangs and stiff body hairs that cause an itchy rash when they come in contact with skin. There are no adults present during the scene, and it is clear that these kids are experienced spider hunters who know the jungle landscape like an old friend.
A lot of people I’ve shown this clip to are horrified that these kids are allowed to “run wild”, or express pity that they don’t have the levels of education and protection that kids in western society have. Very few make the connection between how capable these kids are and how they were raised to become so independant. As I’ve mentioned before, I think it’s important to take away the idea that kids “norm” to what their upbringing allows them. A child who is taught how to survive in the jungle from an early age will become an expert at it. Place that same child in a city, and that confidence may disappear. At the same time, if we give our kids the freedom to explore the natural world around us, along with some instruction about the dangers of that world and how to avoid them, then they will “norm” to it, and become fluent in the language of their own environment. If we overprotect them and don’t give them the chance to develop critical leadership and independance skills, they will “norm” to a lifestyle where they aren’t able to make important decisions for themselves. I’m not saying encourage your children to play with poisonous spiders; maybe start with something smaller, like what’s in the backyard, or a local tidepool, or on the hiking trail. Learn together what is safe, and what is not, and let the kids lead us for a while…
Click on the picture to check out the rest of Human Planet.