In _Last Child in the Woods_, Richard Louv argues that American children are suffering from a lack of connection with the natural world. While it is an excellent book, on some level support for this contention can be justified by simply walking through most suburban neighborhoods. The children are mostly in enclosed spaces - playgrounds or ballfields being organized by parents and coaches in the best scenario, or in the house playing video games or watching tv. Very few are out in their ecosystem, even when the ecosystem is as processed as the suburban lawn.
So is it any wonder that most American children may have generalized fears about things like global warming, drought, dangerous storms...but they don't have either the educational background to understand what is going on, or the practical experience with nature, agriculture and the environment to understand their own connection with the earth. A few years ago, for example, a study came out that suggested the average American child can recognize only 13 species in their own little ecosystem. That is, walk out onto your lawn, and the average child would be hard pressed to tell you whether the tree by her window is an oak, locust or cedar, to recognize which of the driveway weeds she can safely pick (and even eat or make a whistle or daisy chain with) and which are poisonous, or even name the birds that come to her feeder, or identify whether a carrot comes from a tree or under the ground.
There was a time when children had relationships with the trees on their property - when they climbed them, swung on them, named them, talked to them, took up a hammer and nails and made precarious houses in their branches. And they knew something about them - perhaps the little girl might even have tapped the sugar maple in her yard, or collected acorns from the white oak. It is hard for all of us to grasp the stakes of global warming, for example, but a child who knows what a sugar maple is, has a relationship to one and a taste for syrup, can begin to understand the tragedy of "and there will be no more of these trees in our place again..." The more the child understands about ecology in general and about the biology of his or her specific, beautiful, particular place, the more stake he or she has in the future.
Contemporary education has failed in two ways. First, most of us were taught when the Battle of Hastings was, but not the slightest thing about the history of our agricultural system, other, perhaps, than the invention of the plow. We were taught to read poetry, but never to wonder what "Eglantine" Shakespeare mentioned actually looked or smelled like. We were taught the periodic table, but nothing about soil microbiology. That is, our education has prioritized, historically, the distant and abstract, rather than the local and concrete. We were not trained to think of ourselves as part of history, and biology and literature. And this means that we often have no way of connecting our abstract knowledge of distant places and histories with the concrete reality of our future. In many cases, we have no ability to use history to predict consequences, or to understand the connections say, between one fact (the fact that 50% of all reptiles are expected to go extinct) and another fact (that our food web depends on reptile species) and a third fact (that our local reptile species do this and this in our particular ecosystem).
We need to add an ecological and agricultural education to our children's lives. It would be nice in some ways if public schools would do this, but the reality is that we need this now, so we parents must do this. And for many parents, this means taking up ecological education ourselves in our adulthood - we have to ask "What is that tree?" "Why do the dandilions grow here but not the plantain?" "Where does my water come from?" "What does soil humus do to the atmospheric carbon." We need desperately to become literate in a host of areas we've never been familiar with, and teach our children as we learn.
And the other thing we need to do is get our children out onto the soil and teach them by doing, by touching, by growing, by *being* in the world. And that doesn't mean taking long trips to "visit" nature - the occasional visit to a national park is inspiring, but if you feel like you don't have any nature around you, make sure you get some where you are - plant some trees in a vacant lot, start a garden on your roof, call for setting aside land from development, build a community garden. Because your child will grow up with the relationship to nature that intersects their everyday life - no connection can be built on a yearly trip, and doing it much more often is the hypocrisy of destroying the environment to give your children a taste of it. Trust me, there will come a time when your kid will connect those dots - hypocrisy is the one things all teenagers have a magical detector for.
Which means that we have to find nature and a reason to preserve it in our man-made landscapes. We must, in some literal and metaphorical way open up the boundaries of the enclosures and let our children out into their own world. We cannot expect our children to be attached to a nature that is majestic, transcendent, and "over there somewhere." If they are to be invested in the preservation of their future, they must grasp that nature is them, it is their world, their lawn, their garden, their tree, their park, their food, their souls. And they must get to know it in concrete, direct and real ways - both knowing about it, and knowing it with hands and mouth and nose and body.
And, of course, our children need to be inculcated into our environmental practices. They need to see us valuing the environment over our convenience, not occasionally, but every day. Those brilliant hypocrisy-sniffers are again at issue -they need to see us doing things, but also understand that we are doing them from real commitment, and grasp the moral terms of that commitment. They need to learn how to do these things hand in hand with their parents - baking bread with us, and understanding why we aren't driving to the store, shopping in thrift shops with us, instead of at new, and understanding why buying used is better. They need to be wholly integrated not only into the natural world, but our relationship to it. The things we do to preserve the world are the things we do to preserve them, and the most important may be what we teach them. And they need to feel that what they do matters, not just in child ways, but has a real and material effect on the world.
This does not apply solely to parents. Aunts and uncles, grandparents, neighbors, friends - children need adults in their lives who care about them, and who will teach what they have. The children who live around you may not get this from their parents - but they will remember all of their lives, the neighbor across the street who invites them to look in the worm bin and shows them the garden soil the worms create. They will take with them a little taste of the aunt who bakes pies with them, and lets them decide if blueberry-banana is a good flavor. They will someday, as a grandparent themselves, remember that grandpa named the trees, and do it for their own grandsons. If we do it soon, the trees will still be there to be named.