Discovering Nature's Playground

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Published on: Mar. 2, 1996

Last revision: Oct. 21, 2010

As adults, many of us who live in the city now know the value of our childhood outdoor experiences. We marveled at the fragility of wildflowers; we felt the exhilaration of catching our first big fish or narrowly missing that submerged log as we shot through the river's white water. We learned to enjoy and to respect nature.

Now, as parents of an urban-locked generation, we need to be mindful of what our children stand to lose if we do not provide them with opportunities to experience nature through camping, boating, hunting and fishing.

In his youth, Brooks Adams, son of an ambassador to Great Britain, made this entry in his diary: "Went fishing with my father - the most glorious day of my life." So great was the influence of this one day's personal experience with his father that, for 30 years thereafter, he made repeated references to the glowing memory of that day. Strangely enough, Brooks' father, Charles Francis Adams, made a different comment in his diary about that day: "Went fishing with my son. A day wasted."

Adults get in such a hurry and often find it difficult to slow down long enough to show a youngster how to do something or to experience something. Taking time for family outings provides the opportunity for precious interaction between people, without phone calls, errands, strict schedules or television and video games.

Children need wholesome experiences, along with a sense of accomplishment and recognition, and young children need to learn how to play - to stay healthy mentally and physically.

"Uncontrolled aggressions within us are major causes of mental illness," said the late Dr. Karl Menninger, eminent psychiatrist and founder of the recommended play as a means of channeling off excess aggression and as one of the best antidotes for low morale and other conditions that might lead to mental illness.

"His correlation between constructive play and mental health is even more prevalent in today's society," agrees Dr. Joe McCormick, psychologist at St. Mary's Mental Health Center in Jefferson City.

A 1990 survey of how Missourians spend their leisure time revealed that only 5 in 10 residents chose outdoor activities as their preferred recreation, over sports and watching television. The only exercise these spectators get is watching others. Can this be considered recreation?

Not according to the New College Edition of the American Heritage Dictionary, which defines recreation as "refreshment of one's mind and body after labor through diverting activity; play." The 22nd National Recreation Congress has defined recreation as "Any form of activity in which an individual feels a sense of freedom, and of self-forgetfulness, and to which one gives oneself wholeheartedly because of the satisfaction one gains by participating."

The average American now works 163 more hours per year than 20 years ago. It's no wonder that one of the physical complaints I hear most frequently is "Doctor, I feel so tired all the time." As a family therapist, I see quite a few people to whom I recommend some outdoor diversion as an all-around healthy recreation.

Shooting and hunting, casting and angling or boating and camping are wholesome leisure activities. Their chief value lies in the fact that they are not, and never can be just spectator sports - no danger of developing the common disease of "spectatoritis."

They involve both physical and mental faculties.

Even beginners can quickly acquire the basic skills needed to enjoy outdoor recreation. Taking the time to guide your children through the basics of these sporting activities is giving them a gift they will treasure their whole lives. You'll give them a tool for providing their own therapy when the stresses of everyday living saddle them.

It makes little difference whether one is experiencing the elements of nature for the first time or as a seasoned outdoor veteran. The magic never seems to wear off - remember Brooks Adams and his day of fishing with Dad.

Local libraries, parks and recreation offices, local sports organizations, the Conservation Department's Stream Team Program or the Missouri State Water Patrol offer many publications and resources on locale, facilities, how-to's and safety tips for outdoor activities. The Conservation Department's Missouri's Conservation Atlas is especially helpful in locating outdoor recreation sites.

I've also found personnel at Conservation Department fishing events and at Missouri's trout parks helpful in advising the uninitiated how to fish. In addition to bass or trout, club members seem eager to assist beginners in learning the sport, simply because the sport means a great deal to them.

The Conservation Department's program "Becoming an Outdoors Woman" is a good introduction to the outdoors for women. Videos are available on many recreational topics, and weekly outdoor television programs, such as "Missouri Outdoors," host a variety of segments relevant to the outdoors enthusiast. The Missouri Conservationist magazine is another good source of information on outdoor activities and is available at no cost to Missouri residents. Angler clubs, wild turkey hunting and grouse hunting clubs, fly fishing clubs, Scouting activities, canoeing clubs, birdwatchers' groups, free-fishing days and other special events and groups make the outdoor experience more accessible to the city dweller.

Sleeping under the stars can be a great experience for young and old, but the novice camper may want a "dry run" before going into the great outdoors. Try setting up a tent in the back yard for children who have never camped out or plan your first outing with more experienced campers until you feel comfortable. If you have young children, you may have to sleep in the tent with them.

The most difficult aspect of any of these activities is making the time. Recognizing that recreational time should be allotted and taken without guilt is hard for Americans. Although the family composite in 1996 is quite different from our ancestors,' we still maintain their work ethic.

Tranquility without tranquilizers is the main concern here. Stand alone in the cathedrallike atmosphere of a deep forest at sunset. Awaken from a night's sleep under a canopy of trees and, from the warmth and comfort of your bedroll, listen to the early morning sounds of the forest. This kind of tranquility is hard to achieve in the city.

Nearly one in three Americans is now a member of a blended- or step family and, in 1995, 1 in 4 babies were born to an unmarried mother, compared with 1 in 10 in 1980. Current trends indicate that about half of all children today will spend some part of their childhood in a single parent home. This aspect presents new challenges to families trying to find time and resources for outdoor experiences, but it doesn't need to stand in the way.

Today's children are tomorrow's leaders. We try to protect them. We try to teach them self-sufficiency and survival in a depersonalized society. We try to foster values and experiences that will help them build personal satisfaction and self esteem.

Making nature more accessible to our kids through hunting, fishing, camping and boating gives both them and us a release valve for the stresses of an urban society. Our responsibilities may force us to trudge back to civilization, but we and our children will always have the option of heeding the call of the wild.

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