Kids in Nature: The Best Education

Cedar Pont Resort Marcell, MN

I had the good fortune of spending my childhood on 160 acres of Minnesota’s Northwoods. Our property was a few miles from the nearest town of Debs, Minnesota, population eight. Since I did not grow up in Debs proper, I guess you could say I grew up in the ‘burbs.

There are some things in my childhood that I would’ve changed if I could, but growing up on that pristine piece of ground in all its feral beauty was not one of them. We shared a small forty acre lake with another set of neighbors, the Indahls. To get to the lake we would walk across an old pasture with a large oak tree and pass through a narrow band of aspens until we arrived on its boggy shoreline. There was no sand beach and no firm ground before the water, but it didn’t matter. The water was so clear that you didn’t need to guess where the fish were: you could see them, and there were plenty.

It was on the shores of that no-name lake that I witnessed the best air show I have ever seen. I looked up at the perfect time as two bald eagles lifted up over the large spruce trees by the water’s edge. They then soared on the air currents, turning perfectly in unison as they circled the bay a couple times and then left.

It is also on the shores of that no-name lake that I saw my first bear. As it came ambling out from the woods I stood there with my friend, Pete Strand, as we silently stared.

Eventually, with the bear on the other shore just across the narrow, fifteen-foot channel, Pete whistled and my heart stopped. The bear rose up on its hind feet, sniffed the air, let out a woof, and ran back into the safety of the woods. I had always heard that bears were more afraid of us than we were of them, but never believed it until then.

Back off the lake there were pine ridges, ash swamps, and an oak forest. I shot my first whitetail by gun on one of those ridges and my first one with a bow among the oaks.
We lived off that land; eating grouse, fish, and venison, and I was fortunate enough to experience it. Those experiences allowed me to not only know about the natural world, but to come in contact with and experience richly the sights, the smells, and the texture.

Later in life I would use those experiences as an anchor to carry me through times of doubt. I once read a line I’ve carried with me, “Man never feels fully competent until he can perform in the wild.”  

Minnesota resorts are a gateway to many people’s brush with nature. For some it may be as simple as baiting their hook, catching their first fish, or chasing frogs and crayfish. Whatever the experience may be, it will ultimately give them a greater appreciation for nature, and will help to take away the fear of the unknown.

Today’s world for kids has become too sanitized, so much so that many kids are afraid to swim in a lake. The simple fact is that a teen’s PDA carries many more germs than they will find while swimming in one of Minnesota’s ten thousand lakes. Nature is a place of wonder and if we would encourage kids to get outdoors (not to mention ourselves) we would not need to preach to them so much about the environment, because they would naturally gain a respect and reverence for it.

In this electronic age things come at us so fast—the chime of our PDA, the action of a video game, or the special effects of a blockbuster movie—that people are afraid of solitude. Alone with only the rustle of the wind and the soft calls of songbirds, they wonder what they would do.

Richard Louv, in his book, Last Child in the Woods – Saving our Kids From Nature Deficit Disorder, tells of the wonders of nature:

Unlike television, nature does not steal time; it amplifies it. Nature offers healing for a child living in a destructive family or neighborhood. It serves as a blank slate upon which a child draws and reinterprets the culture’s fantasies. Nature inspires creativity in a child by demanding visualization and full use of the senses. Given a chance, a child will bring the confusion of the world to the woods, wash it in a creek, and turn it over to see what lives on the unseen side of that confusion.

In other words, if kids or adults are allowed to experience it, God’s creation will show up and creativity and peace will be the result.

Richard Louv put it another way when he described some of his own experiences in nature when he wrote, “The woods were my Ritalin. Nature calmed me, focused me, yet excited my senses.”

The sad reality today is that many kids are not getting out enough. Childhood obesity is on the rise, along with childhood depression and a growing number of kids being diagnosed with ADHD. Time in nature is not the cure-all, but all studies show that a lack of time in nature is a contributing factor to these and many other issues our children are facing.

I can clearly remember tough times after my parents’ divorce when I would go out into the woods hunting with my springer spaniel, Spice, in search of the elusive ruffed grouse. I recall times when we didn’t see a bird but, as we sat eating lunch on the high banks of the Clearwater River, I was able to sort through things in my mind. It was in those same woods, pursuing that same bird, that my dad and I found common ground and a chance to heal our relationship.

My wife, Lora, and I have worked hard to provide our kids with similar experiences. We have gone for walks in the park along the Rum River, taken them fishing on the shores of Prior Lake when our kids were only one or two years of age, brought them to corn mazes, and of course gotten away for a week to a resort in northern Minnesota to catch fish, smell the trees, and feed the chipmunks. I love watching my kids interact with nature and learn the lessons of it.  

My son, Nathan, caught a moth when he was six and named it Jerry. After he had it a day or so, we told him it was time to let the moth go or it would die from lack of food. Well, he let it go and we watched it fly away, but as soon as it cleared the corner of the house a swallow came and snatched it out of the air. Nathan was crushed, but we talked about the swallow’s need for food, the circle of life, and the fact that everything has a lifespan, including us. Watching nature in action gives us a balanced perspective of life and its brevity so that we don’t take ourselves too seriously.

As parents we all need to instruct our kids in the ways of the world. The best classroom exists not within the walls of a school, but outside the doors of the house, in the quiet of the woods, or in a boat on a lake. These are places that not only provide the unstructured learning that kids so desperately need, they also provide us with the opportunities to build memories that our children can use as an anchor when times get tough.

Photo by Doug Ohman

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