It’s a little sad to see Kids Free month—and our renewed focus on getting kids and their families out in nature—come to a close. Every day of every month should be kids in nature day! That’s how I remember my childhood—the long summer days spent exploring the local creeks and woods, the afterschool afternoons spent building forts and treehouses, the weekend camping trips to the beach and the mountains. I grew up in suburban North Carolina, but there was plenty of nearby nature to sink my muddy feet into. The thing is, you don’t need a National Park to experience nature, you just need a canyon, a creek, or a vacant lot to cultivate some nature rituals.
The greatest gift my parents gave me was freedom, a freedom to roam and experience nature, hands on and unstructured. They set geographical boundaries, but really, as long as I got home before the streetlights came on, I was good. Those days are gone, I know, but I hope parents can be convinced once again that nature is not that dangerous a place—it is a rich and wonderful place, and free time in nature can do wonders to make children more healthy, happy, and creative.
Nature also provides those transformational experiences that bring many of us to a career studying—and trying to save—nature. Nature is frequently a transcendent experience for me, and I’ve had the good fortune of spending time in some pretty inspirational places, ranging from my own backyard to the pristine wilderness of the rain forests of the Amazon. A single experience does not, cannot, stand out for me, in part because I have spent a great deal of my life searching out these transcendent experiences. I am a nature transcendence junkie.
A young Ron enjoys a local creek.
I’ve always had a love affair with trees and creeks. As a child, my mother tells me that she used to go out and call me, craning her neck up to scan the trees to find where I might be. I built tree houses, simple platforms, or just crawled out on a limb. I stayed for hours, surveying the world below, imaging myself as some more arboreal animal. (The other day I asked my oldest son, Owen, five years old, what superpower he would choose if he could have any. Without missing a beat, he said “super climbing powers” so he could really master his tree climbing. I’m sure I would have made the same choice at his age.) I even broke my arm falling out of a tree when I was seven and nearly gutted myself on a sharp stick when a vine swing over a small ravine snapped and sent me free-falling into the creek below.
The other transcendent experience from childhood came at a local creek, just two short blocks from my house. I built hundreds of dams along that creek, captured frogs, tadpoles, and crayfish, then re-liberated them and never failed to come home wet, muddy, tired, and happy. I was a high-energy kid and have little doubt I would have expressed all the signs of ADHD-type personality if I had been cooped up with digital media hours a day.
A young Ron and his collection box.
Collecting was another natural endeavor that engaged me and at times neared obsession. On trips, my father finally got fed up with me filling the car with all the nature odds and ends I pulled out of the woods and insisted on carting home, so he gave me a shoebox, with a string run through it for a strap, and said, “You can bring with you anything that you can fit in there.” And invariably I filled it with magic—bird feathers (I still vividly remember finding the tail feather of a red-tailed hawk), bits of mica, bones of all sorts and sizes, all kinds of rocks, gnarled sticks, fall leaves, textured bark…anything I could fit into that box.
Checking out a panda scent mark in the Foping Nature Reserve, China.
These experiences profoundly shaped who I am as an adult. It came as no surprise to my family when I decided to pursue my Ph.D. in animal behavior at the University of California, Davis, studying the dynamics of ground squirrel-rattlesnake interactions, then moved on to “give back” to nature by coming to the San Diego Zoo, where I began my conservation work, first with giant pandas and rhinoceroses, and, these days, with about anything that walks, crawls, slithers, or flies.
I am trying to pass this gift on to my own children now, giving them every opportunity to hike, camp, and explore our nearby nature. My wife and I have founded our own family nature club, and we are helping other families get nature “back on the to-do list.” We’ve also joined the national movement to reconnect children to nature and serve on the steering committee of the San Diego Children and Nature Collaborative (for more ideas about how and where to go to experience San Diego nature, visit http://www.sdchildrenandnature.org/).
Collecting rhino dung samples in iMfolozi Park, South Africa.
Where will the next generation of environmental stewards come from if this generation does not experience nature? Respect for nature comes from the heart, and to have nature in your heart you need to experience it, not just observe it on TV. For the health of our planet, we owe it to ourselves and our children to “just step outside.” It’s easy, it’s fun, and it’s what you’re looking for—quality time with your loved ones.
So, Kid’s Free Month at the Zoo and Park may be finished for the year, but we hope kids and families will keep getting outside to explore the great outdoors—at the Zoo, the Safari Park, and the canyons and parks around your home!
Ron Swaisgood is the Brown Endowed Director’s Chair of the Applied Animal Ecology Division at the San Diego Zoo Institute for Conservation Research. Read his previous post, Manu National Park: Worth the Bites.