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Child’s Play

Since you’re reading this magazine, I assume you have an interest in the outdoors. What do you think created that interest?

I used to spend hours as a child in the woods behind our house. I climbed trees, built hidden forts, scavenged for berries. I never knew what I’d find, and that was half the fun.

What connected me to conservation was my time exploring woods, fields and waters. It turns out that I’m not alone.

Environmental psychologist Louise Chawla studied what people thought created their interest in conservation. The influences named most often were:

  • The experience of routine play in nature as a child.
  • The influence of one or more mentors—usually family—who shared a love of the outdoors.
  • Involvement in scouts or other outdoor-related organizations.

In the past few months I’ve attended national and statewide meetings that focused on how to enhance conservation education. The goal is always the same: to help people learn to live well with the natural world. The big question is: What works best to achieve this goal?

If we’re going to be a society that supports healthy animal and plant life, as well as a thriving economy based on using natural resources in balanced and sustainable ways, two things have to happen. People need to understand how nature really works so they can work with it and, just as important, they need to care enough to try.

Making the second part happen is our biggest challenge today. With computer games, TV, declining green space and scheduled activities, children often don’t have time for outdoor play. When do children experience the magic of discovering the life in a stream or woods on their own? When do they have a chance to climb a tree, catch a fish, or just watch the clouds float by?

Fortunately, finding adventure in nature doesn’t require much in the way of space. Ken Finch, nature center leader and educator, simply let his kids dig a big hole to somewhere in his backyard. Their project quickly became the hit of their friends in the neighborhood.

Author Richard Louv suggests that we should think of time in nature not only as a way to better understand it, but as a prescription for health, an antidote to what he calls “nature deficit disorder.”

Schools help kids connect with the natural world, but schools today have less funding for field trips, and teachers have to focus on the standards-driven subjects like reading and math.

As a state agency, we can’t do much to help your children get outdoors to play, but we can help them explore nature in other ways. That’s why we started the new Conservation Field Trip Grant for schools, support Outdoor Classroom grants and provide training for teachers in outdoor skills.

We also provide conservation nature centers and naturalists to help thousands of school children each year find their own wonder in nature, and we strive to make our education materials fit seamlessly with the concepts that teachers have to teach.

We do what we can, but only you, as family or friends, can create the chance for children to play in nature. You can act as a guide or simply keep a watchful eye. Children are naturally curious, and most are willing to get wet, dirty and really involved. Just provide the opportunity to get outdoors, and they’ll do the rest.

If a healthy balance in nature is important to the quality of our lives, then surely the love of the outdoors is worth keeping alive. It’s not that hard to start kids on a lifelong interest in the outdoors and conservation. In fact, it’s as simple as child’s play.

Lorna Domke, Outreach & Education Division Administrator

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