Wild child

Growing up in a small, East Texas, country lake town, I was always outside. We grew up on the lake, and were generally outside running around barefoot, feeling the earth beneath our feet, or wading in the water, collecting worms in the mud, and creating imaginary forts between the trees. Throughout my childhood and into young adulthood, this sense of wonder, exploration, and love of nature continues to grow deeper. Moving from that small town to central Texas, I developed a love of camping and exploration of nature with family, friends, and of course my dogs. Now in the Coastal Bend of Texas, I enjoy the sandy beaches, crashing waves, and shimmery ocean water.

It brings me back to where I started, and I wonder, what if I had not grown up outdoors as a “wild child”?

If we had lived in an urban, city setting, would my family have had the same experiences?  Would we have been able to dive into nature, and if so, what would that have been like in a big city? And has this dialogue of children and nature changed since I was a kid?

In 2005, Richard Louv in Last Child in the Woods coined the term Nature Deficit Disorder to describe the effects of separation from nature. School aged kiddos spend less time outdoors than any other time in history. According to experts, children should spend 30-60 minutes outside per day. So why should we teach in, or with, nature? It has been shown to lead to emotional and mental wellbeing (empathy building, reduction of anxiety and ADHD symptoms, and increase in positivity), physical wellbeing (increased physical activity, and increased vitamin D), cognitive development (problem-solving and critical thinking, focus, and creativity), and social and communication skills (cooperation, self-awareness, and articulation of ideas) (Suzuki, 2017, CBCiN EcoExpert presentation 05/2020, and from resources listed below).

One of the best things about nature and spending time outside is you can do it anywhere and it can be as close as your backyard, patio, or balcony.  National Wildlife Federation and Natural Learning Initiative developed a Nature Play at Home guide with information and ideas about boosting your children’s healthy development and creativity. Some ideas could be providing the opportunity to create an imaginary fairy garden, to look for any wildlife like birds, squirrels, plants, or bugs, to have a picnic at a local park, or to sit outside and color or draw, run and jump in rain puddles and smell that earthy smell when the rain hits the ground, or run around barefoot in the grass.  As Robin Moore and Herb Wong said, “Children have a natural affinity towards nature. Dirt, water, plants and small animals attract and hold children’s attention for hours, days, even a lifetime.” I know for me, some of my favorite toys were sticks, rocks, water, and dirt!

So, what if I had not grown up outdoors as a “wild child”? Would nature have grabbed me as it did if I did not have those experiences at an early age?  There is a good chance that I would not be in the professional position I am now, and would not be writing this blog, without those experiences. However, had my backyard been city blocks, I think nature and the outdoors would still be my favorite place, it would have just looked different in the sense that maybe the activities I participated in might have been riding my bike around a local park, or having a family picnic. Most likely, my family would have sought out and joined programs focused on getting kids in nature.

In previous Bluevalue blogs, such as Coral’s and Grace’s, we see how different experiences kids and families have in nature creates long lasting impacts. We can also see that over time, the dialogue has shifted – even within the virtual conversation space of this blog. The question is no longer, “Is nature good for kids?” but rather, “How can we get all kids into nature?”

Fortunately, organizations are prioritizing equitable access to nature. Locally, Coastal Bend Children in Nature (CBCiN) has a mission to connect communities and families to nature and culture resources, promoting healthier, happier, and smarter lifestyles in the Coastal Bend. To learn more, visit their website and Facebook, or connect with me (kara.coffey@tamucc.edu).  If you are not in the Texas Coastal Bend, below are other resources available from other organization doing some incredible things for getting kiddos out in nature:

  • Texas Children in Nature (the parent organization of CBCiN): TCiN has eight regional collaboratives across the state that work directly with local communities to fulfill their mission through community outreach and engagement, nature-based programming, and special initiatives (flyer).
  • Outdoor Learning Environments – (OLE! Texas): transforms early childhood spaces through research inspired designs that increase physical activity and connection with the natural world.
  • Cities Connecting Children to Nature: initiative that helps local leaders bridge the gap between children, families, and access to nature.
  • Children in Nature Network: The vision to is have a world in which children have access to the benefits of nature everywhere they live, learn and play
  • Wilder Child: Nature-connected parenting
  • Natural Learning Initiative: Creating environments for healthy human development and a healthy biosphere for generations to come.
A young Kara, her brothers, and cousin, getting into nature. Photo by Linda Newton

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