As school begins, let’s keep children in touch with nature

From Amber Veverka, a master naturalist and N.C. certified environmental educator in Charlotte:

The kindergarteners that day were wide-eyed.

We’d gathered in a courtyard outside their Charlotte classroom for a hands-on lesson in investigating the natural world. I was a volunteer, eager to explore alongside them.

“What is nature?” I asked the kids seated around me. They peppered the air with their answers. But the one I can’t forget was from the little girl in ponytails who said, solemnly, “Nature is something you should never, ever touch.”

If I ever needed confirmation that we – and our children – are alienated from the natural world, that little girl’s response supplied it.

School is back in session, and families like mine are again swept along in a rush of drop-offs, bus rides and after-school activities. If we aren’t intentional, the school year tide can pull all of us into an indoor life. It’s dark in the morning. Kids are loaded down with homework at night. In between, they’re in classrooms and we’re in offices.

We’re born loving creation, recognizing instinctively that we belong in the grass, under the trees, within earshot of birdsong. But the entire arc of our culture – particularly the culture of an overscheduled, urban center such as Charlotte – veers away from these first loves. We get jobs. We get busy. We live our days in cubicles and cars.

I urge all of us to make this school year one in which we and our children spend more time in nature. It’s not always easy. But it’s possible.

Mecklenburg County alone has 7,400 acres of nature preserves and about 70 miles of greenway and natural surface trails. We can take a weekend stroll through a nature preserve forest or along a greenway creek. If we have the means, we can drive to a state park for a longer hike. Young children might enjoy “adopting” a neighborhood tree, observing the life it supports. Older kids can try geocaching, which combines hiking, GPS and a treasure hunt. We simply can take a few indoor activities – eating breakfast, reading the paper – into our yards or a nearby park.

We can give our children’s schedules some desperately needed margin, and then open the door and walk outside.

Research shows that kids are more emotionally resilient, empathetic and higher-achieving when they have unstructured time in a natural setting. Groups such as the Children & Nature Network catalog dozens of studies underscoring the benefits of time in nature. Just a few of the findings: Students who play outdoors are calmer and more focused than those who don’t. Children who grow up with park access have a lower body-mass index by age 18.

But do we really need utilitarian reasons to get our families outdoors?

We know that our kids’ souls, and our own, lift as we hear the cry of a hawk wheeling overhead, as we watch the first stars spark into life. The natural world is our children’s birthright. Let’s not let our kids grow up thinking nature is something they shouldn’t touch.