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 tree house, a boy/girl scout camping trip, family picnics, or a passion for fishing, hunting, or horse-riding.
Now we baby-boomer parents need to bring back that halcyon childhood pastime of letting our kids (and grandkids) get muddy once in a while. 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 youth from overseas to study science and engineering, talent that gave our technology an edge in the past. Nationwide, the science literacy of our citizens has eroded.
This has far-reaching implications, and perhaps represents the most critical global challenge which America cannot afford to lose. A survey reported in 2002 in the professional, peer-reviewed journal Science found that more children knew the characters in the electronic hand-held game Pokemon 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 their 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 book, “Last Child in the Woods,” Richard Louv analyzes the societal problems that have arisen in the current generation of American youth who have 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, including diminished use of the senses, attention difficulties and higher rates of physical and emotional illnesses.
Southwest Florida has some great new nature-based adventures for youth. Selby Gardens just opened its Children’s Rain Forest Garden, complete with waterfalls and canopy walkway. The Spanish Point historical site has a new kids’ treehouse, called Window to the Bay, which will likely prove a romantic destination for big kids (especially at sunset!). And my family’s longtime favorite, Myakka River State Park canopy walkway, continues to draw crowds of families to glimpse Florida’s forests from the top down, perched atop its canopy tower.
For the New Year, why not pledge to share the natural world with your children or grandchildren? Great holiday gifts include binoculars, rubber boats for exploring streams, 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 adults with lifelong learning.
Meg Lowman, a longtime Sarasota-based scientist and educator, is chief of science and sustainability at the California Academy of Sciences.
Originally posted in the Sarasota Herald-Tribune.