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

The Geography of Childhood

Air Date: Week of

Steve explores the relationship between kids and nature with five children and Steven Trimble and Gary Paul Nabhan, authors of the book The Geography of Childhood: Why Children Need Wild Places. Nabhan and Trimble argue that children need contact with nature for healthy emotional and physical development. This feature is part of Living on Earth's ongoing exploration of the relationship between nature and the human mind, also known as Biophilia.


CURWOOD: It's Living on Earth. I'm Steve Curwood.

(Children: "What did you get?" "I caught a frog!" "He's jumping around." Laughter. "I caught a butterfly." "Let's see if he eats radishes!")

NABHAN: Children need wild places for several very important reasons. I think that the first of those is as a place of refuge, as a place for restoration. A place where we can maintain our self-esteem. A place that's non-judgmental that we can go to. And of course, nature is a great place to be; it's a joyful place to be.

(Child: "I'm going to be put my hand in here..." Scream. "I don't feel anything.")

CURWOOD: That's Lee, Cynthia, and Adam Foley, in their suburban Boston back yard. They're with friends Anna and Christina Barbo, doing what many kids still do on a late summer's afternoon: chasing frogs and one another, exploring the woods, and getting wet.

(Child: "Whoa, he's sloppy!")

CURWOOD: They're the kind of children Steven Trimble and Gary Paul Nabhan have written about in their book The Geography of Childhood: Why Children Need Wild Places, published by Beacon Press. Both authors are professional naturalists and parents. Gary Nabhan says to grow up healthy, children need to connect with wild places and wild creatures.

NABHAN: Our species has evolved in contact with the natural world. Throughout the course of our evolution, our sensory capabilities, emotions, and rational faculties have been triggered in response to natural phenomena. In the absence of contact with the natural world, I believe that those faculties and capabilities atrophy and that human life is impoverished because of it.

TRIMBLE: You know, this is just about the only time in history when we can even discuss such issues. Less than 2 percent of Americans now live in the country, and that number's dropping all the time.

(Child: "I saw a blackbird. But it flew away.")

CURWOOD: What about a sense of place? Is that important for children?

NABHAN: Oh, I think a sense of place is incredibly important for children. We make that first bonding with our home landscape as kids. And I think all of us as grownups can think back to the place where we first made that connection. The open fields at the edge of town or the stream at the edge of the local park. Of connection with frogs, as they might catch frogs along an irrigation ditch. Or lying down in the grass at the edge of a field and watching the clouds go by behind a big sycamore tree. All of us have those kinds of images from our childhoods, and treasure them.

(Child: "Can you pass me the branch?" "I can't; I have a frog and a radish in my hand.")

CURWOOD: I'm wondering: what's the difference between children who are exposed to a fair amount of nature and those children who are not? What does that mean for their lives?

TRIMBLE: Let me give you a very concrete example. Children of Inuit communities, the people that are commonly known as Eskimos, for centuries have had very good long distance and short distance vision. They very early on go out on hunting expeditions with their parents and grandparents and deal with long vistas. They also have to learn how to hold a knife and help with butchering and manipulate items very close to them, often in poor light. With the advent of television and books in Inuit communities, and this is within one generation's time, over 50% of the children in some of those communities have developed myopia. Why? Because the stimuli that they needed to allow their eyes to develop the full range of vision were lacking. They were exposed to stimuli immediately in front of them: TV screens, books, as the primary source through which they obtained information about the world.

(Footfalls. Child: "We're going in the woods here. This is woods. There's woods around here." "There's buttercups, and you see if there's any glow and see if you like butter." Laughs. "That's what my sister did." Laughs.)

CURWOOD: Tell me, how does the outdoors affect emotional development in children?

NABHAN: Kids start out in early childhood and begin to explore away from home base. We hope they start from the safe environment of their family and then move outward from there, and there's this constant tension between what they know and what they don't know, and the safety of home base and the growth and independence that come from moving outward. And as we navigate our world, we begin to think of the world in terms of mental maps.

(Child: "I like to walk through the grass 'cause it's nice and tall. And sometimes I like to go out to that big table over there. And sometimes I go in the real big woods. There's a trail that you follow out here..." "I sometimes find bats, and there's one bat house or bird house, I forget, over there.")

NABHAN: They learn a little bit differently than if they're learning to negotiate mazes on a video screen than if they're negotiating the bushes in the local park.

(Child: "I'll take you where I like to play on, that tree that fell down. Because a lot of trees fell down on top of it, so it's really fun to climb.")

TRIMBLE: They're much more engaged with the immediacy of the natural world right in front of them. The smallest animals, leaves, sea shells, burrows of animals.

(Child: "And some of the leaves near here, like those ones, are sticky. Sometimes I play house on this, and that's the fireplace in there. I always show my friends this spot and they always say cool." "Will you help me up?" "I can't!")

TRIMBLE: Children, when they're not told what to do, tend to go towards the shrubbery on the edge of the playground and make little nests, and burrows, and refuges. And look out. They're basically going through nesting behavior, and finding a very secure, small place that makes them feel comfortable, and keeping a lookout for wolves and other threats out beyond that nest.

CURWOOD: That sounds very primal, doesn't it?

TRIMBLE: It is very primal, almost universal behavior among children.

(Child: "Girls like to do different things than boys, like the girls that I play with, they, like, don't know how to climb as well as me.")

TRIMBLE: There is a tendency for boys to challenge one another more to go out of the nest and grab something and bring it back without being seen, and for girls to engage in, say, making something together within the nest. Or looking out, showing each other things beyond the nest, and discussing those. Those are very, very preliminary generalizations, though.

(Child: "Matthew, he likes to do wild things like climbing and sliding and things. But girls like, that's one of the things that girls do, too, but he likes to act really wild when we play tag and things.")

NABHAN: We just don't encourage our girls to be out there turning over rocks looking for spiders the way we do our boys. In one piece of research done in a small New England town in the 1970s, the researcher found that boys were ranging freely more than twice as far away from home as girls all through elementary school. And even when they begin to have small jobs, boys deliver papers and they learn the lay of the land, and girls start to baby-sit and they're often driven to that baby-sitting job. We deny the freedom to our girls that is going to lead to confidence. And that all accelerates as they reach adolescence and we tell even the tomboys to come down out of the trees that they love. And we do that at the very time when their self-esteem is assaulted by the society.

(Child: Let's go back to the house so we can explore some more things." "Yeah, there's too many bugs back here." "Yeah, let's go." "Whoa, I'm trying to chase the butterflies!" "Sometimes, it's really noisy because we have parties at our house anyways. And like, whenever it's really noisy, or I'm not having fun because, like, someone's being mean to me, I go outside to play by myself.")

CURWOOD: Can you give me an example here of some child who's had this kind of outdoor experience and what's happened to them as a result?

TRIMBLE: Well, I don't want to single out any child. But we had asked a number of urban children if they had ever been alone for more than a half hour in a place devoid of human beings. There was one young woman that I interviewed with my children who grew up in a very remote part of the desert, and when we asked this young girl this question, she said no, then yes, then no. And then finally said, "Well what do you mean? Every night at sunset I take my pony and we gallop out as far from the house as we can and watch the sunset and watch the wildflowers and the mountains and watch the ravens come over the crest of the mountains. But I don't think of that as being alone. I think of that as being with my horse; it's almost as if I'm with another person." And that kind of intimacy, as well as the self-esteem to say I have the capability of going out and discovering the world with my own imagination and with my own relationship with this other animal, I thought was a remarkable statement.

(Child: "My favorite kind of flowers is smell, is forsythias. I can't say it." "Forsythias?" "Yeah. And I sniff the air because I think it smells good.")

NABHAN: I'm afraid that a certain amount of alienation from nature is bound to creep in, as we have fewer and fewer direct experiences with nature. Fewer and fewer direct experience with birth and death of animals and watching plants grow from seeds. Another thing that kids lose is they have most of their experiences with nature simply by watching television, is a sense of patience. You know, when you go out in the field and go looking for birds or hope to see big mammals, you find that not a lot happens, and you may go a long time between seeing birds or mammals or any other creatures. And when the entire life histories of animals are sandwiched into the half an hour between two TV programs, it's a very different sense of reality.

(Child: "I like wolves and coyotes and dogs and stuff. I see them in pictures and on TV and the encyclopedia.")

NABHAN: To be full, fully developed human beings, to be sane and humane human beings, we do need a connection with the earth. The biologist E.O. Wilson at Harvard suggests that this is built right into our genes, and he calls that biophilia, a love for other creatures. And to think inclusively, to think as members of a planetary society, really, that includes all cultures and all creatures, rather than simply as humans setting out to dominate all other creatures, is a value that I think can't help but do good for us.

(Child: "Well, we were making a little home for it. And I, I got a bunch of dirt and grass and made a home for the caterpillar.")

CURWOOD: I'm wondering: how wild do these wild places have to be? I mean, will a suburban lot do? How about an abandoned city lot?

TRIMBLE: That's a great question. I think the places that we call urban waste places that may have weeds and a few rodents and a few birds can give many kids that sense of discovery and participation in nature.

(Child: "It has white spots and see that orange one right there, that has orange eyes?" "Uh huh." "And it has blue. I don't know how many legs it has.")

NABHAN: Little kids don't need big wilderness. It's those small places, the park, the gully, summer camps, gardens. That's where they make their connections. It's any direct contact.

CURWOOD: Steven Trimble and Gary Paul Nabhan are the authors of The Geography of Childhood: Why Children Need Wild Places, from Beacon Press.

(Child: "They make the cocoon." "And they turn into a butterfly. Ooh, there's a bug on my shoe.")

CURWOOD: Lee, Cynthia, and Adam Foley catch bugs and frogs with Anna and Christina Barbo in their back yard in Reading, Massachusetts.

(Child: "And we have a nice ant..." "Step on it." "Try catching...")



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