Pick Up Sticks: How Nature Education Gets Its Mojo Back

An 11-year-old clambers up a waterfall in Vermont’s Northeast Kingdom

Some new voices have come in to play. That’s a bad pun but a good thing. They’re from people who are in the outdoors every day with kids. They have a lot to offer parents or afterschool workers like me. Some of us have read Richard Louv and have concluded that our own kids need to be outdoors more. Sometimes it’s more personal. I have body memory of my own outdoor play as a child. I am also clear that, as a young adult, I lost a feeling of being and belonging in the natural world. I’m not sure “lost” is the whole of it.

Here’s one of the voices for Free Outdoor Play:

We have to come to understand this: kids don’t experience the world visually. They crave interaction. They need to touch, feel, climb, dig, and…yes, destroy. Destruction is sometimes the natural byproduct of nature play. Keeping kids on the trail all the time is a death sentence to their nature connection.

I’m a conservation biologist, so I get that people can love nature to death. I understand that sensitive areas need to be off limits. I know that too much foot traffic can tip nature’s delicate balance. But I also know in my heart of hearts that if we put a wall between kids and nature, we will not have another generation of conservation biologists or environmental champions.

(From Ron Swaisgood’s post NATURE BULLIES: A conservation biologist’s perspective on children in nature : The New Nature Movement.)

I’ll admit to telling kids to stay on the path, at times. I’ll admit to telling them to put down a stick, at times. I’ll admit to taking a flower that was plucked when it shouldn’t have been plucked, and throwing it aside to make a point. (I’m not proud of that one, but where does Leave No Trace begin?). Picking up sticks is as natural as natural can be for a kid. It’s just something they have to do. The problem isn’t with picking up sticks—it’s with mock-fighting or accidental or quasi-accidental poking of other kids with those sticks during school time or out-of-school program time. Ours is a litigious culture and many kids —I’ve got one of them—are capable of inflicting injury in such circumstances.

Tony Deis, founder of Trackers Earth, winnows out  the chaff in the nature/outdoor education movement.

Our style of outdoor education requires the depths of old school wilderness legends, the hawk eye focus of the ultimate sentry and the creative wiliness of the best Dungeon Master to guide the way. Camp becomes powerful by distilling “nature connection” [sic] rawest form. Gutting fish you caught is a compelling activity. Starting a fire to stay warm is compelling. Escaping through the wilderness and slaying a force of faux zombies with safe foam arrows, definitely compelling.

(From  Exploring Portland’s Natural Areas; Interview #2: Tony Deis, Trackers Earth.)

Reading about Trackers Earth makes me want to pick up and move out to Oregon—wait a minute, there’s some groundwork to be done here in this very city. Are you going to help me?

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