When I was recently interviewing my friend, Dolly Cummings, director of the Camp Bayou Learning Center in Ruskin, I asked her why she thought more children didn’t turn out for its wonderful, nature-filled events.
I was astounded when she told me that about half the kids who do come actually express a discomfort for being outdoors in the unfamiliar surroundings of the natural world.
“They’re afraid they’re going to be stung by a bee or bitten by ants, encounter a snake or see a wild animal come out of the bushes,” she said. “My goal in our programs is to alleviate these fears by providing them with knowledge to deal with these unknowns.
“Sadly, despite our best efforts, some children often leave with the same apprehensions.”
I shook my head in disbelief.
When I was a child, my siblings and I practically lived outdoors and loved anything wild we encountered. The only thing that got us indoors was my mom’s call for supper, and she usually had to do that twice.
We played with our neighborhood friends and constantly used our imaginations to made up games, like my favorite, “Don’t Touch the Ground.” We followed each other around the neighborhood and into the woods behind Gary Allen’s house, making sure that whatever we did we could not step on bare ground. Whoever did had to go the end of the line. It lasted for hours.
We played softball so much in our backyard, we wore a small diamond out, and anyone in the ‘hood was invited to join us.
Kids who came over used to ask, “Can Mr. Kindle come out and play?” And my dad did.
We watched nature shows with our parents on TV and developed an appreciation for, rather than a fear of, the creatures in it. We thought nothing of picking up a frog and bringing it home or climbing a tree to snag a peach.
We splashed in puddles, got covered in mud, climbed trees, played with sticks and were fascinated by bugs. We developed natural immunities by being exposed to all kinds of germs.
So when it came to venturing even further out into nature, we had no fear. We were used to being outdoors and exploring the unknown. It was fun.
My editor, Holly Wagner, said her mom used to put a pitcher of Kool-Aid out on the porch and the water hose nearby. She and her siblings were also expected to play outdoors and stay there. She feels it was important to their childhood development to do so and looks back on those times fondly.
“We did things like running the creek beds near Lowry Park and collecting Fiddler crabs,” she said.
Holly has five grown children and four young grandkids. She and her husband live off a lake in Gibsonton, and they enjoy taking the little ones outdoors at sundown to introduce them to the birds that come by at that time of day and the natural habitat around them.
“They’ve developed a comfort for being around animals and aren’t creeped out by insects, lizards and the like,” she said.
Unfortunately, the whole world for kids today centers around electronics. They’ve become addicted to their screens, which has been shown to have negative neurological effects.
Instead of being exposed to the natural world around them, they watch scary Tic Toc videos about attacking bee swarms, snakes on planes and creatures lurking in the shadows as they step outside. They’ve even picked up fears from their own parents about being anywhere but home.
It’s no wonder, then, they don’t want to go anywhere or haven’t developed an ability to use their own imaginations. They constantly see images created for them by the internet, social media and the news.
That’s why places like Camp Bayou, our state parks, the Suncoast Youth Conservation Center, Manatee Viewing Center, Zoo Tampa at Lowry Park and places like them are great ways for parents to introduce their children to actually being in the natural world and experiencing it through all five senses.
“The future of the natural world depends on people who value it, so it will be preserved for future generations,” Cummings said. “Children can’t develop an appreciation for the natural world, if they don’t experience it.”
Lois Kindle is a freelance writer and columnist for The Observer News. Contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org/.