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Adults as Stewards:
Connecting Children and Teenagers with Natural Spaces

By Lisa T. Wood 


Our road trip began with highlighted routes on a map encompassing one thousand, three hundred miles. Unexpected snow, sleeting rain, gusting winds and 100-degree temperatures bore down from the heavens along those miles. Tumbling tumbleweeds, black as pitch beetle bugs and sleek soaring birds crossed our path. Two teenagers, a nearly teen, a mom and a dad drove across wide-open highways and snaked up steep, winding roads.


Family framed by a big window like rock   

People said we were crazy to traverse the Southwest with teenagers, predicting that they would be more interested in the trip finally being over than in the journey and discoveries along the way. However, as we camped, hiked and explored, each child embraced, as art critic Bernard Berenson called it, the "spirit of place." As Emilie, Eric and Monika rambled and romped joyfully across these natural landscapes I felt inspired to more deeply understand their easy connection with the new lands and the implications of children's relationships to natural settings.


A Perfect Fit

Children and nature-the two seem perfectly suited for each other. My own childhood memories are chock full of scampering along the river bed chasing tiny frogs or sitting on the bow of our boat, my legs dangling over the railing with the ocean spray misting my toes as we sped toward the Channel Islands off the coast of Southern California. I recall a deep sense of being "at home" in the natural world-a feeling I still cherish today.

A personal connection with the natural world is one of the most important threads holding us to the tapestry of life. Encouraging the bond between children of all ages and nature is essential for physical, emotional, mental and spiritual well-being. Humans are natural creatures, born of nature. Despite the inclination to think of ourselves as separate from nature, being in relationship with nature, which connects us to our selves, is the most natural thing to do. A vision of childhood seems incomplete without the chance to crouch on sleek sand, turning over little bits of shell or splash through an icy cold mountain stream. It is in those moments that the intimate dialog between humans and the natural world opens.

After the initial excitement of beginning our Southwest sojourn, our children became enveloped in a sense of wonder about the land and the people who had lived there. It was impossible for them to look at something, like an ancient puebloean cliff dwelling or towering rock spire, and not be curious about it. The land teased questions from them-the very act of being in a place for a while creating a relationship. They stopped to read park brochures, trail markers, and plaques. They talked to park rangers, working to create a all learningpicture in their minds of the "who-what-when-where-how" of a place. As it turns out, they were also mapping their own experiences to the way of the land, considering how they fit in or what their own relationship to the land could be.

The late Wallace Stagner, respected statesman of western landscape and history said, "...there is something in that big country that tells an individual not only how small he is but also tells him who he is." This questioning of self was evident in our family's experience as well. I asked the children, of the places we visited, which they would like to spend more time with. Monika said, "I really liked Mesa Verde. I could see myself living there. Now that I know exactly how the people there lived, I want to try living that way myself." This mirroring of the land in us, and us in the land, speaks to Stagner's gift of place to serve as teacher in the quest for self-discovery and identity development.

Extinction of Experience

A natural landscape can be a child's most eloquent, impactful and memorable teacher.  While today there are many ways to invoke learning, the most meaningful relationship with nature as teacher is in person and up close. In other words, we must explore the world for ourselves. But, this is challenging in an age where other activities compete for children's time. Television, video games, the Internet, cell phones, iPods, and even organized sports and piano lessons may make going "outside to play" a thing of the past for kids of a certain age.

Many adults recall carefree days of childhood spent discovering nooks and crannies in the woods or exploring paths behind houses and between vacant lots. There is a sense of loss of freedom and spontaneous play expressed, something missing in the way their children play today. Research confirms the sentiment- evidence of a generational break from nature-gathered since the late 1980's -is growing in the United States and elsewhere. From 1997-2003, there was a decline of 50 percent in the proportion of children nine to twelve who spent time in such outside activities as hiking, walking, fishing, beach play and gardening, according to a study by Sandra Hofferth at the University of Maryland.

Author Robert Michael Pyle's poignant term, "the extinction of experience," or the termination of direct, frequent contact between children and wildlife, captures the essence of children's alienation from wild places. While children today can intellectualize environmental concerns and a connection to nature, an exclusively cognitive perspective ignores other equally as important ways of knowing. Children also require the complementary emotional and spiritual framework to develop a long-lasting, holistic and personally meaningful relationship with the natural world.

Hiking during our trip, we saw several areas marked with a small sign that read, "We are ALIVE!"  The marked areas looked like just ordinary sand. This struck my 12-year old son, Eric, as fascinating. He looked it up in the trail guide. "Wow," he said. "Even though the sand doesn't look fragile, there are living bacteria all over the place that help that sand grow. Don't step on it."

Without this first-hand, personal experience, the natural world is too abstract and removed from one's frame of reference to be of much importance. The high value placed on today's virtual worlds comes at the great expense of losing touch with and loving the natural world. Despite this trend, we must work to be strongly connected to the earth for the health of our planet and each other. While this work requires heightened consciousness, it doesn't require much effort. At the end of our trip, Emilie simply observed that, "If more people know about these types of places worldwide, maybe we would be more conscientious of our impact on our earth."

A Lasting Relationship

This idea of a strong connection, with each other and the earth, was a prominent theme during our family's Southwest journey. With our video games sitting dormant in another state and the laptop computer we brought relegated exclusively to nothing more exciting than routing driving directions, we tried to immerse our children deeply into direct experience with the lands we visited. Whether we were on horseback, on foot, or on boat-each adventure revealed a different way to interact with the land, hearing her stories from new perspectives.

I waited to see what relationships or connections, if any, the children would hear and internalize from the land's stories. After visiting Mesa Verde and Arches National Park, Emilie remarked, "Ultimately our individual time here is so small in the grand scale, but we can really do so much in that time, either negative or positive, that will leave a lasting impact on our planet."  In her notes about the trip Monika wrote, "Just being on the land made me realize how large and old this world is. It is a good reminder that we are just guests on this earth and how old and beautiful it is."

The children often mentioned they loved learning how the ancient people survived on the land and how the land itself was created, observing, "It blew my mind how OLD everything is-it is difficult to conceive of and wrap my head around-how long it took for this land to be created and made this beautiful."

After hiking through Mesa Verde, we sat on a cliff, spreading out from each other to find some solitude.  After crunching along the trail and watching our footing on the switchbacks, it was nice to stop moving and just listen to what came by. While we stopped there, Eric curled himself down into a natural indentation on the plateau. He fit in there perfectly. boy curled in rock2I asked him what he thought of that quiet time on the cliff. "I felt it was a good idea to stop so we could hear everything around us. Like the birds flying by right over our heads and making a big whooooshhh noise that sounded like they were going 100 mph."

Emilie also reflected on that solitude along the canyon ridge:

"At first my thoughts drifted to odd things, then eventually settled down and I really liked looking at the amazing landscape and taking it in. When we are hiking, it is hard to look at everything while not falling down some cliff, so it was very relaxing to sit and absorb the scale and gravity of where we were. To think about whom else had been there, 20 years ago, 100 years ago and 1,000 years ago, and to think that in another 500 years some one else may be sitting there thinking of us was pretty incredible. It really had an impact on me and I will never forget it."


These are sentiments born of direct experience-the visceral depth of feeling as all senses engage and connect to wild places and landscapes.


When the children shared their thoughts during the trip, I recalled the general opinion in popular culture that teenagers are so wrapped up in their own world that reaching them in some meaningful way is like talking to a brick wall. Despite this generalized sentiment, I did not see this demonstrated in our teenagers' responses and openness to the new lands we visited. However, our children have been in relationship with natural places since birth. According to the data, this lifelong exposure to nature primed them to be receptive and reciprocal, even in the teenage years of shifting priorities, ego development and selfhood.


A Natural Shift

There are unique developmental priorities as children move into the teenage years where other interests and needs become the central focus. As a result, teenagers' interests in nature may take a back seat to make room for new themes in the maturing child's life. This phenomenon appears to occur during the period when children begin preparations to take on adult roles and that during this time, the priorities of Western children shift away from the physical environment toward other concerns.

The shift from the natural world seems to be a definitive, but relatively short time period during adolescent development. At some point, depending on the culture and the individual, a re-engagement with nature usually occurs as the adolescent years give way to adulthood.

Cynthia Thomashow, author of Adolescents and Ecological Identity: Attending to Wild Nature, links teenagers' thoughts about nature to the development of a coherent self-image to create an ecologically grounded identity. She believes nature can-and must-play a key role in the healthy development of adolescent identity.

Nature offers teenagers a view into other ways of knowing beyond superficial pop culture and the rigidity of the school bell schedule, providing a counterbalance to the potential turbulence and inevitable paradoxes of adolescence. As they interact with nature from a more mature perspective, nature brings different gifts to the teen than she does to the younger child. Keeping this relationship viable for teens ensures they can turn to nature as confidante and teacher, if and when they desire, to also consider their ecological self within the question, "Who am I?"
girl on a cliff
A Bridge Between Adolescents and Nature

Realizing the benefits of keeping teens and children of all ages connected to nature, adults can help fan the flames of interest, even if only slightly. When the teenager then moves into adulthood she can more easily rekindle her relationship to the natural world around her. To this end, what are ways adults can build bridges to natural settings for teens? Time in nature that genuinely meets the unique needs of teenagers provides:
  • Less adult-generated ideas and more teen-generated ideas.
  • Social orientation, with emphasis on peers.
  • The opportunity to exercise autonomy and make choices.
  • Involvement in, or responsibility for, decision-making.
  • A way to acquire and display competence, both in terms of strength and skill.
  • Respect for their insights and inclinations in identifying meaningful (to them) nature experiences.
  • Opportunities for challenge and demonstrating responsibility.
  • Several options for different ways to participate.
  • Safe places to try out their new ideas and make mistakes.
  • Openness to their innovative and often unconventional ideas.
Adults as Stewards

As as a species, humans are experiencing massive lifestyle changes as technology and secondary ways of knowing are valued over primary experience in the world. At a time both in history and in personal development, when they need each other the most, the nature-child connection is fragile and endangered.

However, adults can be very effective as stewards to ensure the survival of this connection. Armed with knowledge, adults can answer this call to action, taking empowered steps to provide meaningful access to and opportunities for children's direct interaction with the natural world. One day toward the end of our Southwest trip I asked my children for ideas to connect kids to nature. Their responses reveal the potential simplicity of the task before us despite the odds suggesting otherwise.

They said, " Just getting children out into nature will ignite their curiosity to explore the amazing natural wonders our earth has to offer" and "If kids knew how fun it is just to run around on rocks on those hikes, I think they would be more excited to go exploring." I looked at them-that's it?

Author Richard Louv mirrors this simplicity in Last Child in the Woods: "The young don't demand dramatic adventures or vacations in Africa. They need only a taste, a sight, a sound, a reconnect with the receding world of the senses."

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References and Suggested Further Reading

Children and Nature: Psychological, Sociocultural, and Evolutionary Investigations. Peter Kahh & Stephen Kellert.



Last Child in the Woods: Saving our Children from Nature-Deficit Disorder and The Nature Principle. Richard Louv.



The Geography of Childhood: Why Children Need Wild Places. Gary Paul Nabhan & Stephen Trimble.  



Bargaining for Eden: The Fight for the Last Open Spaces In America. Stephen Trimble.



The Thunder Tree: Lessons from an Urban Wildland. Robert Pyle.




August, 2011

a short essay by one of  

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lisa wood


Lisa Wood  

Lisa Wood is a writer, entrepreneur, researcher and adjunct faculty in the School of Holistic Studies at John F. Kennedy University.  


Lisa specializes in the deep exploration of personal and collective consciousness within a holistic framework integrating psychology, philosophy, spirituality, deep ecology, sustainability and new science-earning a Master of Arts degree in Consciousness and Transformative Studies.  


Her current focus is a project bringing new paradigm insights to our understanding of women's unique capacity for spiritual growth and expanded consciousness.


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