Guest Author - Cynthia Parker
In Louv’s Last Child in the Woods, the second roadblock to a healthy relationship with nature (after parental fears) is access to nature. While I do believe that nature has been drastically eliminated from our neighborhoods and our daily lives, with a small amount of effort it is possible to reconnect with nature and to collect the benefits for both yourself and your child(ren).
If you “google” the term ‘reconnect with nature’ you will see links for several books, interviews with Louv, and numerous newspaper and magazine articles about the need to reconnect with nature in order to heal. The healing to which these refer is physical, emotional and spiritual. The call to “reconnect” comes from all over the world. I read one very interesting article about how children in China who live in large cities are often unable to describe a simple flower. When taken on excursions into nature, they go “wild” with the joy of the experience. The photo with the article was of a child standing at an apartment window looking out over the city. In that photo, there is not one tree in sight. I cannot recall any city in the U.S. that I have visited where I did not see a tree.
Obviously the days of children exploring the woods on their own are over for the most part. With the exception of small towns and rural areas, there are far too many dangers that outweigh the need for nature. However, quality time spent with parents or guardians in nature can not only be beneficial to the child, but also the parent or guardian. So where do we find these nature areas and how easy are they to access?
There are 58 national parks located in twenty-seven states in the United States. They vary in size from 6,000 acres to 8 million acres. National parks, for the most part, are an affordable vacation alternative, especially if you want to reconnect with nature. Most have campgrounds for those who are ready to “rough it” in tents, some have campgrounds with camper hook-ups and there are even some that rent small camping cabins. (A true camping cabin does not have all the luxuries of home. They can have as little as four walls and a roof and some type of heat source, with cots on which to lay sleeping bags.) There are a variety of passes that are available to families. All passes cover entrance and amenity fees for a driver and all passengers in a personal vehicle for sites that charge per vehicle, or four adults for sites that charge per person. Children 15 and under are always admitted free.
For national parks, an annual pass is $80 and allows access to all national parks in the United States for one year. A Senior pass is available to U.S. citizens and permanent residents over the age of 62 at a cost of $10. This is not an annual pass; the $10 covers the holder for a lifetime. Disabled U.S. citizens and permanent residents can obtain a free access pass that covers entrance fees and a 50% discount on most amenity fees. Proof of disability is required. A Volunteer pass is also free of charge and is available to volunteers who hold 250 hours of service with federal agencies that participate in the Interagency Pass Program. The newest access pass was introduced in May of 2012. It is the Free Annual Pass for Military and is available to all active duty military personnel and dependents. Identification must be provided in the form of a CAC card or DD Form 1173. The pass covers entrance fees, but not amenity fees. National parks also have “free entrance days” for those who do not want to invest in a pass. They are listed by park at www.nps.gov.
State parks are in even more of abundance and many of them are require no entrance fees. These are the perfect places for a day trip to commune with nature, a picnic lunch, or an exploration hike. Unfortunately, as state budgets are cut, so is the funding for state parks. Many have fewer rangers and more run-down facilities. Regardless, I encourage you to explore them! What better place to begin to renew a relationship between your children and nature than in your own state? Hold a family reunion at a state park and give the family a peaceful, natural setting for relaxation and fun, while also supporting your state park system by renting a picnic shed for the elders to rest and the babies to take naps. Your investment will go a long way as it reintroduces your children to nature and all of its benefits, while also creating and strengthening family bonds, and supporting the park system that keeps nature “alive” in the United States.
While I strongly support the national and state park systems, there are simply times when these are not options that we can afford. There is hardly any neighborhood, however, that is not reasonably close to a natural experience. Most of you can probably name a wooded area, a river with access for fishing or boating, walking trails, or a local neighborhood park where interaction with nature is possible. It may not be the source of a great natural revelation, but it could be where your child first learns how funny squirrels can be as they watch for intruders while chomping on an acorn. Nature’s cycles can be followed throughout the year as new plants bud, develop in to mature plants, their foliage changes color, and then they “sleep”. There is a purpose in every season and what better way to explain this than to allow your children to witness it in your own back yard, so to speak. Our neighborhood backs up to woods by a river and they have provided many experiences that have been exciting, relaxing, and a true learning experience. However, our driveway has also been the site of natural experiences, especially at night. It was from our driveway that I taught my daughters to tell the difference between the sounds of cicadas, crickets, and frogs. Sitting on the carport on a summer day I have been able to help them distinguish between the call of a jay, a crow, and mockingbird. You may not think that you can interact with nature in your own surroundings; however, there are few neighborhoods where it is totally impossible. Even large cities have buildings with rooftop gardens and neighborhood parks.
For all of the benefits mentioned in Louv’s Last Child in the Woods, and for the relationships that you will build with your children as you re-enter nature and explore it with them, I highly encourage you to make a date with the natural. You might be surprised at how beneficial it is, not only for your children, but for yourself.