Where is the Wild Child?

Do we know children who have nature deficit disorder?

John Dewey stated, "Experience [outside of school] has its geographical aspect, its artistic and its literary, its scientific and its historical side. All studies arise from aspects of the one earth and the one life lived upon it."  (He was an American education reformist, philosopher and psychologist and not related to the guy who came up with the Dewey Decimal System-that was Melvel.)  I don't know if you have noticed this yet, but I am all about the experience.  Good, bad, ugly, beautiful, endearing, heartwarming, angry, puzzled, hot, cold, and 40 below...it's all about the experience and learning from that experience.  So why does the learning experience have to be from a concrete blackboard?  Why does learning have to end once that last school bell rings? Why can't we have more experiences with children outside?

Two articles came out this last month in Minnesota Monthly and Outside magazines; both of them speaking about learning by "doing" and "doing the learning outdoors".  It's ironic that the mantra, "I HEAR AND I FORGET. I SEE AND I REMEMBER. I DO AND I UNDERSTAND" had been rattling around in my brain for a while. (It's Socrates, by the way.) 

So...why aren't we doing and understanding the outdoors? I pulled out my book, Last Child in the Woods: Saving Out Children From Nature-Deficit Disorder by  Richard Louv and discovered that between the mid-90s and 2003 there was a 50% drop in the number of 9-12 year olds who hiked, walked, fished and even gardened.  There were 800 parents surveyed and only 26 percent said their kids played outside every day. I can see you all nodding. Some of those kids are now parents which makes me think that the percentage is much lower today.

Talking with a few mentors, there have been challenges in getting some kids outdoors.  One lives 4 blocks away from a park and the child grumbled that they have to walk and not drive. Another showed their mentee how to boil sap and the child's focus was on a smart phone and how there was no phone service. And still, another showed up for a bike ride and the child was engrossed in a new video game system with a sibling.  They didn't go anywhere that day.

Raising a Wild Child  in Minnesota Monthly  is by a Minnesota writer who tells a tale about his experience in an old WWII canvas army tent and how his dad disliked the whole camping experience. He's different with his own children and encourages his readers to get out. In Outside Magazine We Don't Need No Education the article touches on getting kids outdoors. Ok, this one is also about home schooling, but that wasn't portion that drew my attention.  In We Don't Need...the draw was that these kids played outside and learned by playing outside. Which tree has the best bend to make a simple bow? Is it true that if the bark on a maple tree in the fall indicates it's going to be a harsh winter? What type of soil should we look for if we want to go blueberry picking? What's that sound? 

Great questions, right?  We can sit down at the computer and do a little browser search and find the answers, or we can get the kids out there and learn the process of inquiry and then, sometimes, waiting.  Itasca County is a treasure box waiting to be plundered.  There are great trails all around town and if you are more that a 1/2 a mile from a lake, you must be out of Itasca County.  Take a look at some new places in Itasca County to explore HERE.  Or how about the Forest History Center? Oh, it can be so much more than a walk along a trail--bring a MN wild or native plant book along and try to identify the flowers and fauna. (Great way to learn research and referencing.) Go fishing and identify the type of fish caught. (The DNR has a great poster with all the local fish.) And if you happen to keep the fish and fry them up, it's a way to see where some of our food comes from. It doesn't have to be a school lesson. It's brought up in casual conversation between two friends.

In my office, I have a schematic posted that shows the professional indicator of pathways to mentor influence.  OK...OK I won't bore you with all the details but I do want to share the three outcomes of the positive influence of a mentor.

1. Socio-emotional: Well, they are spending time with you-A wonderful positive adult and learning more about acting decent in public. (I say this to my kids all the time!)

2. Identity:  This is a little tougher in that it could take some questions to draw out the confidence needed in some youth to help develop and nurture a strong sense of positive identity.  Check out some WICKED GOOD QUESTIONS.

3. Cognitive Development: The continual growth experience to gain more ability to think and understand and remember. It has to do with brain development and how a child sees the world and how that changes with more experience. (It means we put the first 2 together and watch them grow and mature while their view of the world changes and expands.) Some educators call this scaffolding.

And what better way to experience the outdoors.  1) They are spending time with you. 2) They are learning and interpreting new things through awareness that they are separate and unique individuals. 3) By expanding their knowledge of the world around them they develop a stronger knowledge which brings us back to 1)... and the cycle repeats in a upward spiral.

I had the privilege of being host to my niece and nephew who are 7 and newly 4. We were at the lake with 3 buckets chasing baby fish. I asked them what are baby fish were called. There were some interesting answers. (I think the answer is fry.) We were engaged in this simple task from dinner time until after the sun set.  We first started on our own and eventually came together as a team to move the large group of fry from one person to another communicating which way they were heading. There were no words or plans made to form a team, it just naturally happened. We were able to catch a few, count them, look at them and then let them go.

We looked up quickly after about 2 hours to watch the sun set, blew it out as the last rays dipped behind the pines and were back to fish catching by bucket until we couldn't see.  Hhhm. Maybe next time we will bring the headlamps out...

Something this simple can engage kids. They can learn naturally through experiences and a few well placed question--all while having FUN! Of course, we still may get the grumblings about walking to the park or not being able to get phone service, but I am just optimistic enough to say perseverance will pay off.

What can you do to get your mentee to be a wild child? Share your comments below.


Raising a Wild Child  in Minnesota Monthly and We Don't Need No Education  in Outside Magazine are in the Bridges Kinship Mentoring office if you would like to read them. I also have a copy of Last Child in the Woods: Saving Out Children From Nature-Deficit Disorder by  Richard Louv .