Wednesday, October 14, 2009

Fostering a Sense of Place

Not long ago, I found myself amidst a group of energetic 6th graders on a field trip to Andrew Wiley Park (Sweet Home, Oregon) on the banks of the South Santiam River. The field trip, sponsored by The Freshwater Trust (formerly Oregon Trout and the Oregon Water Trust), was one of dozens that are held each fall in Oregon as part of the Salmon Watch program (now a part of designed to raise kids’ awareness of and appreciation for the value of native wild fish, aquatic conservation, and environmental stewardship. It’d been nearly six years since I last volunteered my time with this particular program and I was reflecting on the similarities and differences I observed in the kids then and now. Probably true the world over, the kids on this particular field trip displayed their youthful exuberance and boundless enthusiasm (and thirst) for learning. They were both playful and inquisitive, outgoing and shy, noisy and quiet, grossed out by a decaying salmon carcass but too engrossed in learning something novel and being able to touch it to pull themselves away. For all apparent purposes, this group of kids could have been any normal group of kids.

Mostly I was struck by an underlying and unspoken – yet acutely aware of – sense from many of the kids that being outdoors and interacting with the rest of the natural world was an almost completely foreign occurrence for them. And I was saddened (I actually felt a dull pain in my chest/heart) to realize that for many of these kids, this probably was one of the first times in their lives they’d been encouraged to explore the outdoors. I’m an eternal optimist but couldn’t help but think that perhaps Richard Louv is right – too many children these days are afflicted with nature-deficit disorder.

But I found a great deal of hope and inspiration in this group of kids’ inquisitive, playful attitudes and eagerness to “dive right in” and turn over rocks, touch a decaying salmon, and ask the tough questions (e.g., “Why do salmon have to die?”). I loved seeing them get excited about the world around them…and I couldn’t help but catch some of that childhood wonder. It was a remarkably rewarding positive feedback loop and I basked in its warm glow for some time while we all stood by the river’s edge, awed by nature’s complexities. And I was glad to know that groups like The Freshwater Trust are out there making sure opportunities exist for kids to “get connected” to nature. Any more, too many of these types of opportunities are disappearing. While we find ourselves in tough economic times, more and more people are “staying local” and exploring their surrounding areas. Wouldn’t it make sense to bolster programs that speak to the local areas, environments and critters rather than cutting them? And give recognition to businesses that are not only willing to let their employees disappear from a day of work to volunteer with programs like this, but are committed to helping our children develop these connections and foster that sense of wonder? Our world needs more of these people and programs.

Nevertheless, my interactions with these children left two deep (and familiar) impressions on me. First, if conservation efforts are to have a lasting effect, children need, at an early age, to develop and maintain an intimate relationship with the rest of the natural world – we, their parents, friends and relatives, are the foundational role in that development; we are their keystone examples. Second, regardless of age, it’s important to foster the child in all of us – for that same childhood sense of wonder is what keeps many of us moving forward. And if we don’t maintain that childlike sense of wonder as adults, how can we hope to pass it along to our children?