Nature’s Secrets

Kids need to play in the mud now and then

December 1, 2013 

“Those who contemplate the beauty of the earth find reserves of strength that will endure as long as life lasts.”

Rachel Carson

When baby boomers think back to their childhoods, they can probably recall a treehouse, a Boy/Girl Scout camping trip, family picnics, or a passion for fishing, hunting or horse riding. Now we need to bring back that halcyon childhood pastime of letting our kids (and grandkids) get muddy once in awhile. Studies indicate that they will grow up healthier and happier because of a connection to nature.

We are in the midst of a science education revolution. Federal funding for scientific research has been slashed relative to inflation. Our country currently attracts fewer youths from overseas to study science and engineering – talent that gave our technology an edge in the past. The science literacy of our citizens has eroded. This has far-reaching implications, and perhaps represents the most critical global challenge that America cannot afford to lose. A survey reported in 2002 in Science, the professional, peer-reviewed journal, found that more children knew the characters in the electronic, hand-held Pokemon game than could identify an otter, beetle or oak tree.

Never in the history of humankind has an understanding of science been more complex yet more important. Knowledge is the best weapon if young people are to make good decisions about personal health, climate change and sustainable use of natural resources. They need to know what affects the chemistry of the ocean, why tropical rain forests are critical to life in the temperate regions, how millions of years are required to create petroleum from dead plants, and why mercury builds up in fish.

In his well-known “Last Child in the Woods,” author Richard Louv analyzes the societal problems that have arisen in the current generation of American youths, which has generally lost contact with natural science. Louv quoted a fifth-grader, who claimed, “I like to play indoors better ’cause that’s where all the electrical outlets are.” Louv defines “nature-deficit disorder” as the human cost of alienation from nature. That cost includes diminished use of the senses, attention difficulties and higher rates of physical and emotional illnesses.

For the new year, why not pledge to share the natural world with your children or grandchildren? Great holiday gifts include binoculars, or a butterfly net to discover garden pollinators. Climbing trees, watching a spider build a web, watching snowflakes, or a few flowers on the kitchen table create connections to engage children in natural science, and inspire lifelong learning.

Meg Lowman, Ph.D., a forest canopy expert, is senior scientist at the N.C. Museum of Natural Sciences and research professor at N.C. State University.

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