In which I ask, “Why even go outside?”

When I take Patrick outside, on a trail somewhere or at a nature park, as a parent I allow him these (what seem to me simple and obvious) activities for children:

– running on a trail, out of my arm’s reach
– climbing on tree stumps
– picking up sticks and letting his imagination run wild
– touching plants, but not stinging nettle or poison oak
– rolling over logs to find critters underneath

I have no problem letting my child engage with the natural world. Unless there are signs at a particular park that ask not to do anything specific (in most cases, not going off trail), we find it a necessary task to not only play in nature, but to play with nature. Unfortunately, not everyone agrees.

I recall one time when Patrick and I were taking a stroll through Tryon Creek State Park, in Portland, when we came upon a group of kids from a middle school. They were on a field trip, and had chaperones that must have been high school students or a little older. These chaperones were asking the students to: “Stay in the middle of the trail” / “Stay in a single file line” / “Don’t touch anything” / etc. As I heard these demands, whilst Patrick is running free along the trail, I asked to myself, “Why bother taking a group of kids on a field trip to a state park, a forest?” If all they can do is walk in a straight line and dare not make physical contact with any of the trees, flowers, slugs, logs, and rocks that for whatever reason their teachers decided they needed to see but NOT touch, why even go outside? I do understand there is the need on part of the teachers and others watching over the kids to control a large group, but to ask a child to go outside but not touch anything they see is, to me, an immediate turn off to nature for that child. I emailed about this experience to Richard Louv (this was in August 2010), and he replied, “that behavior is widespread, unfortunately. But fortunately there are people like you offering a different vision of the world.” Here’s Patrick on that same visit to Tryon Creek, wandering ahead and, oh my, with a stick in his hand:

Tryon Creek State Park, Portland, OR

Sticks. Oh, sticks. This brings me to a more recent observation (in early July) at Gabriel Park, also here in Portland. Patrick and I were out walking through the park, and stopped so he could play on a playground. While he played and I sat nearby on a bench, a group of summer camp kids (with a Portland Parks & Recreation-run camp through the Southwest Community Center at Gabriel Park) came upon the playground and proceeded to be kids. I think they were taking a break from whatever-themed camp they were participating in. At one point, a kid picked up a broken branch from a tree. What he intended to do with the stick, I do not know, but one of the camp staff immediately (I mean less than a second after he picked it up) said: “We don’t play with nature. Put it down.” She could have asked, “What are you going to do with the stick?” or “Make sure not to hurt anyone with that stick, okay?” But no, We don’t play with nature. Again, I see this as a turn off. If she meant it as a blank statement for the time that the kid is with the summer camp, and not a general rule for life, then maybe saying such a thing is fine. But is it? The kid is signed up, afterall, for a summer camp through a parks and recreation group, and it is in a park. Again, I understand the need to look out for other kids and control a large group of them, but if a kid is not allowed to pick up a stick, in a park of all places, what larger message about one’s relationship to nature is this kind of attitude sending into the minds of youth?

I contacted Portland Parks & Recreation about this observation and received a response from a former camp director at SWCC. He basically said the intention of the camp staff who told the kid to put the stick down and said “We don’t play with nature” was most likely two- fold: to ensure the park was left as it was before the campers were there, and to avoid any future misuse of the stick. While he commented that kids can rip out grass and pester/kill insects, I do not see what impact moving a stick that was already on the ground would have on a 90-acre park. Again, the issue of controlling a large group of kids is of concern here, but the camp staff’s reaction was so immediate and absolutely not in response to an individual circumstance. I think a better way for her to have gone about it would be to ask the kid what his intentions for picking up the stick were. Perhaps he was interested in looking closer at some moss or lichen growing on the branch, or something else wholly unknown because he was not given that chance to explore. We allow children to hit balls with metal bats and slam helmeted heads together, but the idea of a kid holding a stick and perhaps using it to encourage his or her own imagination is scary and a big no-no.

Often times I find myself asking when I observe how some adults or older children who act as educators/mentors/etc. discourage nature play: “Why even go outside?” These sorts of issues have been discussed recently by two environmental educators and a biologist, and their articles are all worth your time reading, especially if you yourself usually follow the “don’t touch” rule:

Ron Swaisgood, “Nature Bullies: A conservation biologist’s perspective on children in nature” (The New Nature Movement, May 22, 2012)
David Sobel, “Look, Don’t Touch: The problem with environmental education” (Orion, July/August 2012)
Ken Finch, “But… Isn’t It Dangerous? Risk and Reward in Nature Play” (Riverhabitat, July 17, 2012)

This entry was posted in "richard louv", education, gabriel park, portland parks and recreation, tryon creek state park, Uncategorized. Bookmark the permalink.

24 Responses to In which I ask, “Why even go outside?”

  1. This is a spoof, isn’t it? Please??

  2. Kari says:

    Thanks for flagging this. I’m very against do not touch nature culture, however I do find it widespread in North America and sometimes I’m wonder if that is some of the resound why kids spend less time outdoors then the peers in North Europe. Just spend some time at schools, daycares in Norway. They build forts, climb trees and play with sticks at schools actually is it encouraged by teachers. It is boring to be a kid and not be allowed to interact with nature.

  3. Alyss says:

    I am working for an environmental ed outfit in the Portland Metro area this summer and am facing some of these dilemmas myself. With 35 elementary school aged kids, four or five adults and 3 or 4 teenagers (who may need as much supervision as the elementary school kids), we do have to have more rules than you do with your one kid (who is both emotionally and legally fully your responsibility). My favorite days at camp are the days I get to let them run free and explore nature in a hands on way, and luckily there are a few situations where we can make that happen. There are other times when we have to be more controlling of them and their interaction with nature. Sticks are scary to camp counselors… we see poked eyeballs and whacked heads and upset parents. Its a hard balancing act, for sure, and my sincere hope is that all the kids at my camp have OTHER outdoor experiences with their parents where they ARE allowed to play with sticks, climb trees, get their feet wet and do all the things we can’t let them do at camp for safety reasons. Your Patrick is a lucky, lucky guy 🙂

  4. Great post and sadly this attitude it is more widespread than you think. I am fortunate to tak emy class of 3-4 years to local forest where they can run free & play with sticks etc. & we bring this back to the palyground. But we once went to a locally run ‘forest fun’ day & I was horrified that the children had to stand in a row looking at stuff but not touching – needless to say I never took them back.

  5. Meg says:

    Great post, Michael. Thanks for sharing it on our PlayAgainFilm fb page. Nature is not a museum, it is part of us and we are part of it. If we are to raise future generations that care about their environment we need to first let them connect with it. “Leave no trace” or “Do not touch” philosophies have an important place in the world, but often they are taken too far. Hope you and Patrick have a wonderful August, my favorite month for outdoor fun in Oregon.

  6. kboehnlein says:

    Wow, as an employee of Portland Parks as well, I am embarrassed that you witnessed a counselor promoting such a hands-off approach to being with kids in nature. I do agree Alyss above that it is necessary to have more rules because of the sheer number of kids that we’re responsible for, but on the stick issue, I just makes sure to give kids that leeway…i.e. “Make sure you are being safe with that stick.” It hasn’t failed with me. If there is a close call with a stick moving higher than waist level (possibility for stick in the eye), I make sure to point it out so that they see that they can hurt people. Thanks for the post, Michael. Very thought provoking and I was thinking about it at work all day today, seeing how I can promote a safe environment with kids outside but allow them to explore and learn from their own mistakes (like walking into a blackberry vine or tripping on the trail) without getting hurt 🙂

  7. kboehnlein says:

    oh, one more comment. It was obvious that the PP&R employee you saw at Gabriel Park had not had nature education training. That is the crux of this issue and I am not saying that it’s easy to get to a place where you are completely comfortable letting kids play freely. I hear my interns being dismissive with kids and their free play all the time. As is the case with most problems or frustrations in our society, the solution is almost always education, education, education!

  8. csquare says:

    I am privileged to work with children as a Texas Master Naturalist, and often lead nature hikes for homeschool and scout groups in our area. It can be very difficult to balance the the liability and safety issues of groups with the NEED for unsupervised and imaginative play. For example, I was really unhappy about restricting the area allowed for our Water Explorations Day this past spring, but we had had a bumper crop of venomous snakes this year, and a child had recently been bitten by a water moccasin at the lake we were planning to use. We still issued nets, they still got wet, they gleefully scooped out dozens of crawfish, minnows, and other wigglies. The difference was, we matter-of-factly covered snake safety ahead of time, kept the kids in a smaller area, and each child was REQUIRED to hold their net in front of them, sweeping it through the tall grasses if they changed shoreline locations. We wanted them to stay safe since venomous snakebites are both extremely painful and extremely expensive, but we really wanted to preserve the opportunity for them to have free reign with a dip net. Only a few weeks later, my husband and I went for an evening stroll in the same park, and because the sun was setting we stayed on the wide paved trail. We saw two different copperheads on the pavement during our brief stroll, and if we had taken our dog, who is usually walking ahead of us on her leash, could very possibly have gotten into a bad situation. Two people walking quietly are probably in more snake danger than a large noisy group running free. My groups have used black walnuts as a natural dye, dragged fleece “tails” through the tall grass to see what sticks, done leaf rubbings, caught and cataloged ladybugs, scraped bark to see if twigs are dormant or dead, pulled apart flower heads and seed pods, scattered cattail fluff in the wind, caught insects, looked for patterns in natural objects, smelled wild onions, and caught frogs. We start every walk with a review of Poison Ivy identification, but thankfully, our biggest safety challenges to date have been from heat and pollen allergies, and I look forward to many more interactive walks in the future. If you can only look from a distance, you will never learn to love.

  9. Jessica says:

    Your point is well taken and this topic is incredibly relevant to the work the Friends do and to the future of environmental stewardship. It is important that the connect-children-to-nature movement actively goes beyond the “look but don’t touch” approach. Providing opportunities for children to engage with nature using all their senses is of vital importance if we wish to inspire in them a fundamental love of the natural world. That love translates into appreciation which becomes a desire to protect and preserve the natural world as they grow up.

    The challenge is to balance the needs of wildlife and habitat protection, particularly in sensitive areas, with nature engagement. Here at Tryon Creek we actively seek to find the right balance, and although great strides have been made, we need to continue to explore approaches to better understand the impact of our actions and the actions of park visitors. One exciting development to note is that we are currently working with OPRD to try to create a Nature Play Area that would allow families to explore the forest in direct ways that they are not able to on the trails.

    As always, we appreciate your thoughtful views on the importance of engaging children directly with nature.

  10. For the Love of Nature says:

    Your blogs are always an inspiration, thanks so much!

  11. Greg says:

    I grew up playing army with sticks, now it seems like everyone is so Tech they don’t even talk or play, yay for sticks!

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  15. darwinsbulldog says:

    I was excited to come upon a PP&R camp group at Sellwood Riverfront Park yesterday in which each of the 20 kids or so had a stick (some 2) in their hands as they marched down the riverfront. I told the camp staffer how happy seeing that made me and how I had just written about the opposite. He thought that was pretty cool and I told him he’s doing it right. That showed me that the incident at Gabriel Park was not representative of all PP&R camps, as some of their educators who have commented here were quick and right to make sure I know.

    Thanks all for the agreeable comments!

    Also, this post was picked up and linked to by a New York Times parenting blog:

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  17. Steve Gustafson says:

    Once again I thank God that I am no longer young in this ruined world.

    Wandering the woods, by the brooks, and along the abandoned railroad tracks was my childhood. I chased critters, caught minnows, farmed toads in a pond, and occasionally caught lizards and garter snakes. It was the easiest way to be alone.

  18. Julie Reyes says:

    As a person who loves the outdoors and happily take my own family there I totally understand your stance. As a former teacher I can tell you that controlling a couple dozen kids on a field trip can be a major task and the liability if one of those kids gets hurt is HUGE. Many parents don’t participate in volunteering to help out with field trips, so it is hard to find chaperones. Many also don’t teach their kids that they can play but within boundaries (hitting others with sticks, putting plants in mouth…) and their kids are out of control. Those are the same parent who scream to the heavens and rain down a lawsuit if their darling is injured in anyway. Sad, but it happens frequently.

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  22. Michelle says:

    I followed your link from Free Range Kids and, although I’ve been lucky enough not to run into “we don’t touch nature,” I’ve run into enough strange rule to make me believe it happened. Makes me think kids are better off having their nature experiences in small groups, preferably with their parents.

    • darwinsbulldog says:

      Parents, or some other adult figure in their lives. Rachel Carson once wrote, “If a child is to keep his inborn sense of wonder, he needs the companionship of at least one adult who can share it, rediscovering with him the joy, excitement, and mystery of the world we live in.”

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