Wouldn’t it be gratifying if parents could guarantee their children’s hobbies, academic interests or career paths later in life?
When it comes to fostering a lifelong interest in nature, they can. In fact, the formula is textbook. The way to grow a naturalist – someone with a voracious appetite to learn about the wonders of nature and an appreciation for what is found there – requires just two ingredients: unstructured time in natural places and an adult who models respect for nature and enjoys the outdoors.
Naturalists throughout time have accounted for this formula. In his book Naturalist, famed American biologist and writer Edward O. Wilson describes his evolution as a biologist as beginning during childhood when he wandered beaches each summer:
“Hands-on experience at the critical time, not systematic knowledge, is what counts in the making of a naturalist. Better to be an untutored savage for a while, not to know the names or anatomical details. Better to spend long stretches of time just searching and dreaming.”
For Wilson and many other childhood wanderers, these carefree explorations resulted in a passion for nature that Wilsons says “enchants them for the rest of their lives.”
Defined, a naturalist is someone who studies the sciences of the natural world. In early American life, a “properly educated” person was also a naturalist – a basic understanding of local plants and animals was common, even respected.
You can spot a naturalist because he will know the intricate details required to identify flowers, seeds, venomous insects and birds – or her eyes will light up when the discussion turns to endangered plants, the discovery of a new species, or research about non-native invasive plants. Naturalists can decipher what most cannot – the natural world that surrounds us.
“A naturalist is someone who is inquisitive, who wants to know what a plant or insect or animal is and who searches out the answer,” says Kyle Waggener, director of education and lead naturalist at the Chattanooga Arboretum & Nature Center in Southeast Tennessee. “Being a naturalist is also understanding processes, how something survives and where and why.”
Waggener, who has a degree in Wildlife Conservation Enforcement from University of Central Missouri, confirms the “naturalist formula.” At a recent Association for Nature Center Administrators (ANCA) conference, he took part in a workshop in which the participants were asked to share how their interest in the natural world began. Waggener says everyone had the same answer:
“There were nature center administrators and teachers from all over the country in this workshop, yet they all said what was most important and memorable for them was having unstructured time outdoors in a natural area as a child. And they all had at least one adult in their lives who was really into nature, as well.”
Waggener tells the same story. Growing up in Independence, Missouri, he spent many days exploring a creek behind a friend’s house in the neighborhood. “We would go searching for crawdads, and I had a pet snapping turtle – until my mom found out,” he laughs. “We made little boats with twigs and leaves and then we would bomb the boats with sweetgum balls (from the American sweetgum tree) from the banks of the creek.”
Scientists from most disciplines agree that science and conservation efforts today and in the future will absolutely require naturalists, individuals who understand the natural world around them. However, if naturalists must be groomed in childhood, society as a whole – and particularly parents – must address how children are spending their time each day.
Children today live harried lives that are organized and timed nearly to the minute. Well-intentioned parents spend their days toting children to and from school, after-school activities, sports, dance classes, clubs and social events. In general, children ages 8 to 18 spend more time (44.5 hours per week) in front of computers, televisions and game screens than any other activity in their lives except sleeping.
The environment for outdoor play has changed, too. Subdivisions have replaced many natural areas. School playgrounds are manicured, lacking woods and rough edges where children tend to naturally gravitate to explore. Most parks today are dominated by baseball and soccer fields and surrounded by suburbia.
Even Waggener’s childhood landscape has changed. “My story has a sad ending,” he says, recalling a recent visit to his childhood home with his daughter, Rhiannon, who is 6. “The creek is now underground in culverts and the land has been developed.”
While many parents fear the risks associated with being outdoors, there are also dangers in raising children who are not provided time to play outdoors. The American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) has studied the importance of free play in the development of healthy children and found that benefits include healthy brain development, a more developed imagination, dexterity, emotional strength and physical strength.
Ultimately, it’s is up to adults to create opportunities to share nature with the children in their lives, whether that is by choosing to live near natural areas, frequently visiting natural areas, or working to protect natural areas in their neighborhoods and communities.
The words of Charlotte Mason – a revolutionary British educator in the late 1800s who believed children should spend as much time as possible outdoors exploring, watching, and developing “nature knowledge” – speak to parents and other adults in the lives of children today:
“We are all meant to be naturalists, each in his own degree, and it is inexcusable to live in a world so full of the marvels of plant and animal life and to care for none of these things.”