Adventure Learning in the Natural World

GulfBranch4A few years ago I read Last Child in the Woods: Saving Our Children from Nature-Deficit Disorder by Richard Louv, and it gave me a good and solid scare. I already knew about ADD, ADHD, a host of speech and language disorders, and even PDD (Personality-Deficit Disorder, a condition my college roommates and I made up to be snarky about other people.) Now there was NDD, and my children surely had it. I had it. I’d spent most of my life in cities or suburbs. I couldn’t identify more than a few trees or birds. I took my children to museums and parks with artificial surfaces. We. Used. Screens.

After that, we went on a short but intense nature binge. I dragged the girls on hot, buggy nature walks we all hated. We collected leaves none of us could identify. I made them observe insects and mushrooms with magnifying glasses, but I couldn’t tell them, or myself, why we were doing it. I thought we might awaken something dormant within ourselves, a natural connection we had been suppressing with air conditioning and Backyardigans episodes. But all we seemed to glean from the exercise were mosquito bites and hot tempers.GulfBranch3

Fast forward to now; we are all a few years older and wiser. Over time our family has developed a more balanced relationship with nature. We enjoy hiking and camping in moderation. We like to wander the local forest and creek, collecting sticks and rocks, climbing boulders, catching frogs. Still, when a child asks, “What’s that flower called?” or, “Why does the creek run faster here than over there?” I don’t always know how to answer.

Luckily for us, there are nature centers. Our county has three – two are county run, and one is regional. All are free and open to the public 39 hours a week. They’re staffed by park rangers and other knowledgeable staff and volunteers. They hold free and low-cost programs for all ages, day and night – story times, campfires, plant talks, animal classes, nature walks, clean-up days.

Potomac3We recently visited two nature centers in one week, and were reminded how incredible these resources are, to both our family and our community. First, we attended a rabbit-themed story hour at Long Branch Nature Center. It was really for younger children, but we didn’t care. Everyone loves stories. We listened to several books about rabbits, then the instructor brought out a real rabbit for us to pet. Afterwards, we spent almost two hours in the center, watching the turtles and snakes, playing in the discovery room, and walking the nearby trails. My oldest daughter, a sponge for facts, read every sign, and possibly half the books in the center, while the younger ones built a play snake habitat and played “nature store.”

A few days later, we attended a class on birds of prey at Potomac Overlook Regional Park & Nature Center. I definitely learned as much or more than the children. We learned about talons, beaks, and eyesight of local hawks and owls. Did you know birds of prey are called raptors? As opposed to scavengers, which eat things already dead. After the presentation, we visited the captive owls the center keeps, birds that have been irreparably injured and couldn’t survive in the wild. It tied things together to see the beautiful creatures themselves after just learning about them. Plus, the Harry Potter fans in the group loved seeing a real “owlery.”Potomac2

As we left both centers, we noted other exhibits or programs we’d like to return for. Hopefully, in time, we can reverse the symptoms of NDD I was afraid we once exhibited. By spending time outdoors, and learning about the natural world, we do our part to ensure there will never be a last child in the woods.

Potomac1Does your family like to spend time outdoors? How do you learn about and enjoy nature together?

If you’re worried about Nature-Deficit Disorder, or want to find new ways to explore the natural world, follow these links:

30×30 Family Nature Challenge (David Suzuki Foundation) – Register your family to spend 30 minutes a day outside for 30 days in May
Nature Rocks: Inspiring Families to Explore Nature– Fabulous articles and blog posts chock-full of inspiration and ideas, plus an incredible activity generator
Connect Kids and Nature (National Wildlife Federation) – Explore or make your own Ranger Rick Geocache Trails, join the Wildlife Watch, and find lots to do in the Family Fun Zone
Nature Find – Locate parks, trails, and other nature sites near you