Originally published in Orion magazine.
Look, Don’t Touch
The problem with environmental education
by David Sobel
THE KIDS HAVE BEEN UP since seven-thirty playing computer games and watching cartoons. What a travesty for them to be inside on such a beautiful day, you harrumph to yourself. On the refrigerator, you notice the schedule of events from the nearby nature center. “Let’s Get Face to Face with Flowers,” it beckons. Just the thing! It’s a sparkly May morning. Buds are bursting. There’s a warm breeze full of the aromatic scent of the woods just waking up.You trundle the kids into the minivan. They despondently consent. “Do we have to do a program? Programs are boring,” the older one complains. But as soon as you pull into the parking lot at Happy Hills Nature Center, their faces brighten. They fling the sliding door open and scamper down through the blossom-filled meadow to the shore of the pond. Ross, age seven, pulls off his sneakers and wades in, bent over searching for frogs. Amanda, age ten, plops down and starts making a dandelion tiara. What a good decision, you think to yourself.
Terri, the smiley naturalist wearing the official Happy Hills insigniaed staff shirt, saunters over. “Here for the flower program?” she chirps. “We’re meeting up in the Cozy Corner room to get started.”Ross asks, “Can Freddie come too?” holding up the fat green frog he has befriended.Terri’s bright face darkens a bit. “Sorry. Freddie needs to stay in the pond. Did you know the oils from your hands can make Freddie sick?”In the darkened Cozy Corner room, Terri has prepared a PowerPoint of all the flowers you might see on the trail today. “Here are some spring beauties. They look just like little peppermint candies. But, of course, we can’t eat them. And here’s one of my favorites, Dutchman’s breeches. Why do you think we call them that?”After about the seventh slide the kids start to squirm in their seats. “Daddy, I have to go pee,” complains Ross. After about the twenty-seventh slide, you too have to go pee.“And now, let’s see how many we can find,” Terri says. It’s good to be back outside. Upon entering the woods, Amanda notices a red eft in a patch of moss. She takes a few steps off the trail and Terri chastises her: “Remember, Amanda, nature is fragile! When you walk off the trail, you crush all kinds of little creatures you can’t see.” Farther on Ross scampers up into the inviting branches of a tree that has fallen across the trail. “Sorry, Ross, no climbing, too dangerous, we wouldn’t want you to get hurt.” At each flower, Terri circles everyone around and tells them the Latin name, the herbal uses, the pollinator, the . . . Once in a while someone gets to touch the petals, only veeerrry gently. Picking flowers is strictly verboten.Toward the end of the walk, the trail comes out by the pond, where Amanda finds her discarded dandelion tiara and slips it into her shirt, watching to make sure Terri doesn’t notice.
On the ride home, no one talks.“Well, that was fun,” you enthuse, trying to get the conversation going.Amanda extracts her dandelion tiara and perches it on her head. “Picking flowers was fun. But we told you about programs, Daddy. Too many rules. It would’ve been fun if we could have just played all together in the meadow.” You find that you agree.
Contrast this experience with John Muir’s recollection of arriving at his family’s first American homestead in remote Fountain Lake, Wisconsin, when he was eleven. Within minutes, he and his brother were up in a tree observing a blue jay’s nest. From there they raced about to find a bluebird’s nest, then a woodpecker’s, and thus “began an acquaintance with the frogs and snakes and turtles in the creeks and springs.” The new world of untamed America was thrilling for John and his brother:
The sudden plash into pure wildness—baptism in Nature’s warm heart—how utterly happy it made us! Nature streaming into us, wooingly teaching her wonderful glowing lessons, so unlike the dismal grammar ashes and cinders so long thrashed into us. . . . Young hearts, young leaves, flowers, animals, the winds and the streams and the sparkling lake, all wildly, gladly rejoicing together!
This is the joy of children encountering the natural world on their own terms, and more and more it is becoming a lost idyll, no longer an integral part of growing up. There are many reasons for this loss—urbanization, the changing social structure of families, ticks and mosquito-borne illnesses, the fear of stranger danger. And perhaps even environmental education is one of the causes of children’s alienation from nature.
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