The Extinction of Experience

What is the extinction of a condor to a child who’s never known a wren?
— Robert Michael Pyle
  • I remember catching “polliwogs” (tadpoles) by the bucket full and filling up the baby pool in the backyard to keep them and watch them grow.

  • I remember lying on our backs on the driveway to watch the clouds pass along a soft blue sky.

  • I remember the smell of licorice growing along the creek where we would walk and ride our bikes, unattended by adults.

  • I remember my mom walking me home from school one day when a bus passed us, whipping a large pile of leaves into a swirl of leafy confusion all around. We just laughed.

  • I recall our family “bug walks.” We carried out little bug identification guides along with us, but it always seemed as long as dad was there, we didn’t need the books!

  • I remember all the time we spent feeding the ducks at a nearby pond, shaded by big willows and always inhabited by hungry waterfowl.

  • I can still feel the cold and damp, the soft and quiet space of the redwood forest.

These memories are ingrained in my soul. But they aren’t the result of a wildly privileged childhood.

I grew up in a suburban community in California with three sisters, a brother and a single dad. I didn’t take ecotourist vacations or go to summer nature camps. We were told to play outside, and I’m so glad we did! It is these really vivid memories of my childhood that made me the aspiring naturalist that I am today. But, these experiences of childhood are less and less common and the result is the extinction of experience or the lack of natural and unscripted time in nature which is leaving children reluctant and fearful of being outside, especially on their own.

I see this as a teacher. I visit many classrooms with many children of various backgrounds and I see the fear and the reluctance to get their hands a little dirty, to smell the earthy soil I bring in, or to touch the critters I present to them. In the past month I’ve crossed paths with a research project that questioned what I am observing, and the results are telling.

“Children’s Attitudes Towards Animals….” is a research project published this past summer, 2019. It questioned a child’s perception of animals in relationship to where they are growing up, comparing domesticated animals to exotics, rural to suburban to urban kids. They surveyed nearly 3000 fourth graders and middle schoolers under the presumption that kids in more rural and suburban areas would have a more positive perception of local animals compared to urban children.

They don’t.

Regardless of where a child lived, they favored exotic animals like pandas and tigers, over local and common animals like bobcats and lizards. More than that, they demonstrated a higher level of fear toward local animals.

Researchers concluded that a child’s diminishing free time outdoors and increased time on screens is influencing their perceptions as programs and campaigns to save threatened species (mostly exotics) is working, but clearly not encouraging local exploration during free time.

I hate to add anything more to a teacher’s to-do list, like make sure your students explore nature, but I actually think there are subtle changes we teachers can make that could help reverse some of these findings. But should teachers care about this? I do believe so. I think raising a whole generation of people afraid to venture outside is wrong on a lot of levels, starting with health and well-being, both mental and physical. It certainly doesn’t bode well for our local organisms who we live alongside and who need our consideration if they can continue to do so. I’ll expand on the benefits of time in nature during another post, and in the meantime get to some practical steps for teachers!

“Fun Fridays” and class incentives used by many teachers usually include games, activities and special experiences. Could you add a nature walk or an outdoor scavenger hunt to the list of options? How about a picnic for lunch? Could you make a point to identify a tree, plant or bird species you see often on your playground and share that with your class as you move during the day? Planting a native flower or two outside your classroom window or door, or hanging a bird feeder within sight of the classroom are easy ways to invite local wildlife to come to you. While many children love balls and jump ropes at recess, others may like access to binoculars and hand lenses.

My boys do get the ecotourism vacations and summer nature camps I didn’t get as a child, as well as a wide range at home to explore the creek and woods in our suburban neighborhood. We have a system of how to de-robe in the garage when they come home soaking wet and muddy from playing outside. We should’ve invested in a mudroom for our house!!  This photo was taken on a hiking trip in Brevard NC.

My boys do get the ecotourism vacations and summer nature camps I didn’t get as a child, as well as a wide range at home to explore the creek and woods in our suburban neighborhood. We have a system of how to de-robe in the garage when they come home soaking wet and muddy from playing outside. We should’ve invested in a mudroom for our house!!

This photo was taken on a hiking trip in Brevard NC.

Many grades teach plants and animals as part of the required curriculum. We know kids love to learn about penguins and lions, but could you pick a local species to focus on? Maybe you talk about the exotics in class but the research assignment has to be on a local species. Spend more time learning about your local ecosystem than a far-off place like the rain forest or arctic. I know plenty of 4-year-olds who can spout facts about the tropical rain forest but can’t differentiate a pine cone from an acorn. Don’t eliminate what you do, but rebalance the focus.

Local resources exist, and they are awesome!! Look for vendors who specialize in local education. I strongly recommend Wake County Parks, and of course, Dragonfly Nature Programs teaches only local wildlife. I love our county library system. They have so many books about local species of plants and animals. The NC Wildlife Resource Commission produces short bios about our native animals. They are easy to access and print off as a classroom resource or to help you prepare to teach about an animal you don’t know much about.

Nature is inspiring! It can be used to teach any subject. Teaching a child to explore their natural home will encourage them to value it, want it to be protected and that love will extend to far away places. Let’s celebrate the wonders right in front of us!!