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Public Radio's Environmental News Magazine (follow us on Google News)

What's Wrong with Wild Kids?

Air Date: Week of

Commentator Sy Montgomery ponders why the living and mysterious world of nature is so frightening to so many people today.


CURWOOD: Where would our collective imaginations be without the old fishing hole? From Huck Finn to Pen Rod to O Pioneers, American literature is filled with depictions of our children at play in and around ponds, lakes, and rivers. But that all seems long ago. And now, as commentator Sy Montgomery tells us, our fears may be ruining our kids' experience of the world.

MONTGOMERY: My husband's friends came to visit with their 2 little boys, then 4 and 6. The kids drawn by the tall stalks and weird pods and strange galls and singing crickets immediately ran off into our field.

"No!" their mother cried out. Were they running with scissors? Racing into rushing city traffic? Came another motherly shriek, "Get them out of the tall weeds!" What is going on here? Nothing can be more natural than kids playing in a field. Sticks and stones and woods and puddles, it's the stuff childhood is made of, right? If not, something's wrong.

Well, something is wrong. Somewhere along the line, many parents have become afraid of the natural world. When my friend, a librarian and author Ed Dunsing, told friends at work he would take his kids for a swim in the lake that afternoon, people were horrified. What's wrong with swimming in the lake? As one person put it, "There are living things in there!"

The problem with nature, as far as some people are concerned, is that it is alive. Unpredictable. Messy. Possibly life-changing. Which perhaps is why we've allowed safe, predictable suburbs to sprawl where shadowy woods and muddy ponds and sticky swamps, tall grass fields once spread, and drew kids like magnets. A hundred years ago every kid had a secret spot in the woods. Every kid knew how to make a daisy chain and where to find bullfrogs and minnows. When kids all had at least a patch of wild land to play in, they knew. This is the real world, where life itself acts and interacts with you. Where you can shake a patch of blooming jewelweed with a stick and watch the plant explode hundreds of pods in response. Where just wiping your finger in front of an ant's path changes its course. Where owls hoot back to you and fireflies come light on your hand in response to your flashlight.

Our kids are safe and sound in front of the computer or TV. But no matter how interactive new computer programs say they are, they aren't life. Nature is. As a young mother once remarked to the poet Patty Ann Rogers, "I brought this child into the world. The least I can do is let him show it to me." And that's what we lose when our kids lose the outdoors: our clearest windows on the real world.

CURWOOD: Sy Montgomery's book The Spell of the Tiger is due out in paperback this spring. She comes to us from New Hampshire Public Radio.



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