Letting kids be kids

When it comes to being in nature, getting dirty is a very good thing


    “Young kids long to play," say Scott Sampson, "it’s what they’re designed to do.” You’ve likely seen Sampson before—he’s the tall, loping paleontologist that bookends each episode of the PBS show Dinosaur Train. He’s also the author of the recent book How to Raise a Wild Child: The art and science of falling in love with nature.

    The problem, he feels, is that we—parents, teachers—tend to unwittingly get in the way, placing limits where there shouldn't be any. Kids want to get dirty; we want to keep them clean.

    “Too often these days, children’s encounters with nature are dominated by a look-but-don’t-touch directive,” he says, something which distances them from the natural world even despite their ingrained infinity for it. “Nature connection depends on firsthand, multisensory encounters."

    Kids need lots of dirt ... 

    It’s important, he says, that kids see nature less as a laboratory for higher learning than a “messy, dirty business” where kids can involve themselves in “picking leaves and flowers, turning over rocks, holding wriggling worms, splashing in pond.”

    Rather than limits, he says, children benefit most from experiencing its opposite: possibility. When kids see mentors and peers kayaking, hiking, catching frogs, it all seems cooler, more available, than it ever has before. And the more they perceive the value of active outdoor activity “the more kids will tend to adopt the same value.” The real key, is just getting them outside. “Nature connection is a contact sport,” says Sampson, “and nature can take it.”

    More often than not, kids are ready to get out there, on their own, long before we’re ready to set them loose. “I find children are much more ready to go to camp than their parents are to let them go,” says Patti Thom, director of Camp Tanamakoon in Algonquin Park.

    Dave Graham, past director of Camp Kandalore just outside Minden, agrees. “Kids are traditionally ready for day camp or residential camp when they start to get involved in activities outside the home—playing hockey or baseball or starting to generate interest away from the family.”

    ... and lots of space 

    It’s in our DNA as parents to be protective, just as it’s in our kids’ DNA to sneak past the caution tape. In recognition, Sampson coined the term “hummingbird” parenting as an antidote to helicopter parenting. Hummingbird parents, unlike the helicopter kind, keep a bit of distance, “staying on the periphery, sipping nectar … and zooming in only when necessary.” It’s a process of course, just as growing up is, though it recognizes that children’s needs are changing much more quickly than our own. They’re ramping, just like they’re supposed to do. And that’s OK.

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