Rx: Get Them Outside!
Rick Van Noy explores the natural with son Sam and daughter Elliott.
When I set out to write a book on the importance of connecting kids to nature I believed then, and do now, that the problem was fairly obvious – kids spending too much time plugged in, not enough opened out. My task, as I understood it, was not so much to engage in a sociological explanation but remind people of alternatives. Less wag finger at “kids today” or nostalgic look at golden age than put on my trail shoes and figure out what we might do.
Raising kids in Blue Ridge country, we are fortunate to live and play among the world’s most biodiverse temperate hardwood ecosystem, home to a variety of trees and plants and freshwater invertebrates whose bounty those in the plains to our west and east can only envy.
And spring is among the best of seasons for taking kids into this Appalachian playground. Soft rains swell creeks and invite creek walking, my favorite activity with kids, where you look for crayfish and maybe salamanders, which around this time are celebrating a grand coming-out-of-the-ground party. And on the walk to the creek notice the wildflowers, the increased birdsong, some new sign of spring every day. Each discovery, each log overturned or feather found, leads to what Rachel Carson called the sense of wonder, a gift she thought all children should have.
In summer, the shade of these forests provides air conditioning to hike or camp in. You can also cool off in one many swimming holes or by rafting one of the region’s fabled rivers – Nolichucky, Nanatahala, Chatooga – whose names make my own watershed, the New, seem a little boring, but it never is, least not by canoe, which with the family is like a fishing-swimming-birding picnic.
In fall, the deep burgundies and bright gold of October carnival call us out, but kids are never quiet on hikes and it’s no wonder: On some grassland or forest where the circuitry of our brains was honed, knowledge of such color and sensory detail kept us alive. We had to discern whether edible or lethal, friend or foe, and how to relay this information to others. Winter is the best time to get kids out (but then they are all best), for sledding and skiing yes, but also perfect to discover the jackpot of tracks in snow: the secret lives of invisible neighbors. And somewhere on these journeys you realize the kids are getting fresh air and exercise, sharpening motor skills, testing limits, solving problems: good old-fashioned fun is healthy child development.
Carson called it the sense of wonder, and I now know what kids call it. On one spring walk we came across a red eft, the terrestrial stage of an Eastern newt, and my son said, “OH MY GOD DAD COOL CHECK IT OUT.”
There hardly ever needs to be an agenda. It doesn’t take much to be surprised or moved by something out there. And in being moved, and in moving, kids are given the fountain from which further health, learning and responsibility begin. The message is really quite simple: get them out. Just don’t expect them to be quiet.
Rick Van Noy is the author of “A Natural Sense of Wonder: Connecting Kids With Nature Through the Seasons,” and a professor of English at Radford University in Virginia.