Memories of a Free-Range Childhood

Aldo Leopold, ecologist, author and founder of the science of wildlife management, once wrote that there are those who love wild things and sunsets, and there are those who do not. While I agree that there are people who prefer to relax on the couch and watch television than to sit on a grassy hillside to watch the sun sink down over the mountains, I don’t think that people are born disliking nature. Children are drawn to animals and are natural “tree-huggers” (as well as tree-climbers!) If they dislike or fear nature, it’s because of a traumatic experience or because they’ve been sheltered from it because of growing up in an urban, human-centered environment.

We are born loving nature.  Author Edward O. Wilson, in his book Biophilia, wrote that humans’ attraction to animals and natural landscapes is biological and a result of evolution. But because humans are social creatures, even a thing like a love of nature can be socialized out of us. From an early age, we can be taught that nature is something to be studied, commoditized, feared or used for entertainment. Or, we can be taught that nature has inherent value, that it sustains and nurtures us, and that we cannot be separated from it without endangering our own physical and mental health. Nature, we teach children, is either something “out there” or it’s something that is a part of us and that we’re connected to.

People of my generation or older often remark about what a different world they grew up in. They reminisce about wandering all over town with their friends as children, playing in the lakes and streams and woods and making up games with found objects. When I was 10 years old, my friends and I used to walk around the ball fields behind my house with a fishing net and catch butterflies, which we would then put into a jar and observe for a while before letting them go. We would bike ride up and down the streets, visit garage sales, buy candy at the corner convenience store or ice cream cones at the Dairy Queen. Our mothers never seemed to worry where we were or if we were okay. They just asked us to be home for lunch and dinner, which we would happily do after an entire day of exploring the neighborhood.

I didn’t live in some idyllic pastoral valley far away from urban crime, either. I lived in inner city Detroit, and this was the mid 70s. My husband grew up in State College, Pennsylvania, and his memories of a free-range childhood are similar, but consist of more natural settings: dark forests, forbidden fishing ponds, and a small mountain anchoring the town.

My earliest memories of nature outside my neighborhood were weekends spent either on Lake Huron or at smaller, interior lakes, either boating or picnicking on the shore. I was afraid of the deep, black water, but my parents encouraged me to swim in it anyway. Entire afternoons would be spent in our motorboat, with the plap-plap-plap sound of the waves hitting the sideboard as my dad cast out his fishing line or my mom handed out sandwiches. When I got older, my family and I took a road trip across the country, and it was in a campground in South Dakota that I took my first walk in the wild woods. That vacation was a big part of why I now live in Colorado, and why I love to hike.

My parents were protective, but they didn’t teach me that nature is something to fear or abuse. Our vacations, which were mostly road trips with our aluminum trailer in tow, took place in the countryside, in campgrounds, on scenic byways and national parks. Nature was a reward, a place to rest and rejuvenate, and a place to find that wildness that was so lacking in the inner city where we lived.

In the 21st century, things are different. Many parents fear letting their children out of sight of the backyard. The public school system teaches science, but not place-based ecology. Children learn to analyze nature but not necessarily love it. Nature is taught as being necessary for economy, as having value only as an object to be quantified, studied and turned into profit. Loving something requires having a relationship with it, and it’s hard to have a relationship with numbers, pictures in a book, or cells seen through a microscope.

When children are given an opportunity to have a relationship with nature, either through trips to the lake, or by observing backyard animals, or fishing in lakes and streams, they develop memories that influence how they perceive nature later in life. Rivers have value for more than just electricity generation. Forests have value for more than just timber and pulp. Oceans have value for more than just gas and oil exploration. These wild places are necessary for our survival and our humanity.

They will grow up knowing this, not because they learned it in a textbook. They will know it because they dream about being in vast, natural places or because they long for the sacred peacefulness of a glassy lake at dawn. They will become lovers of wild things and sunsets.

Parenting, Fear and the Great Outdoors home page imageI recently was introduced to a wonderful website for parents who love being active outdoors with their children: This website contains a plethora of resources, tips and information on how to enjoy just about any outdoor activity with little ones, whether it be hiking, fishing, climbing or backpacking. OutdoorBaby invites experts and bloggers to contribute articles on their outdoor recreation experiences with their family, and these articles are sometimes funny, and always useful and inspiring.

Heidi Ahrens, the woman who started the website, is a former public school teacher and educator for Outward Bound. I was excited to learn of her project because I understand the importance of exposing children to both structured and unstructured time in nature (see my blog post about contemplative nature activities for children). It’s good to see there are more and more resources and information for parents who know the importance of outdoor education and activities for their kids and are looking for no-cost or low-cost ways of having fun and doing something healthful with them.

I asked Heidi a few questions about her mission and background:

What is your earliest and best childhood memory of time spent in nature?

Heidi: My parents lived in a variety of ramshackle houses with drafts, outhouses, and snow pilling up to the second story window. My earliest memory is using the outhouse.

My best earliest memories are of going on walks in Fundy Park with my dad and looking at marshland and flowers and playing in the woods around furry trees (the trees probably had a kind of beard like lichen on them).

My best teenaged memories of the outdoors: As a teen I went hiking alone, camping, and visited cabins that were only accessible by rowboats.  My parents and my friends’ parents trusted us and were not fearful.  At sixteen I crossed half of Canada by bicycle with a girlfriend.  We knocked on doors and asked farmers if we could stay on their land.

In your work as both a teacher at a public school and an instructor at Outward Bound, what do you see as the biggest differences in kids who spend a lot of time outside in nature or who have a love of the outdoors, versus those that don’t?

Heidi: I have worked with students from such varied backgrounds, but it is really hard to generalize about children who spend time outdoors and those who did not.  I believe that the students who spend no time outdoors because of economic hardship, social stigma, inaccessibility, or cultural differences often exhibit the same positive adaptability and creativity that kids who spend time outdoors exhibit. The kids that exhibit, in my view, worrisome behavior are those that grow up in a sheltered environment, in suburbs and have parents that are fearful of the world outside their door.

What do you think are the factors that prevent parents from being more active outdoors with their children? What do you usually tell people when they say it’s too much of a hassle to take their kids hiking/biking/walking/exploring with them?

Heidi: Probably the top factors are time, inexperience, fear, and money.

I think that a lot of people think that it is too much of a hassle to take kids exploring in nature.  It takes a lot of work and dedication but it is work that pays off in the end.  It is also a hassle to go shopping with your kids or going to the movies or going to a restaurant, but people do that every day.  The payoff for getting into the outdoors with your kids is that you get these wonderful experiences that you can build a positive, happy relationship on.  You have memories, health, and intellectual curiosity building while hiking with your kids or observing wildlife; this is not true with going to the mall.

I also need to say this.  It becomes easier when you create systems to organize yourself and when you let go of expectations and ideas about performance and go out just to be together.

Your website is filled with practical and user-tested tips for families who are active outdoors and want to include their young children. What gave you the inspiration for this specific model of website? was created because I saw a need to use my skills as an educator, a mom, and as an outdoorsperson to help others.  I decided to stay home with my children and I wanted to continue my intellectual curiosity and I wanted to continue to learn.

If money and funding were no object, what kind of outdoor education program would you design for young children in public schools? How about teens?

I have worked very hard at creating projects like training materials for teachers, workshops, that can build on so that we can reach the largest number of families. Some of these projects are in school trainings and others are community based.  Yes, if we had the money we would be able to build these programs quite quickly since I have the background to produce such materials, but these days it seems like people like to fund research and materials that are based on intellectual development rather than on hands on or rather simply what I would call person building initiatives

So outdoor education programs should be modeled after the idea that we are going to build positive, creative, and inquisitive minds.  I don’t believe the goal should be at first to get children to identify three different kinds of trees.  Children should be guided in realizing the interconnectedness species, adaptability and creativity through experience rather than through lectures or set standards. Our bodies are strong , powerful, intuitive and capable to consciously live in this world.


If you would like tips and stories on how to get your kids outside in nature and make sure everyone in your family has a safe and fun time, visit

How to Raise Eco-Conscious Kids

You know that being “green” has become an official fad when you start seeing t-shirts for 12 year old girls at the department store imprinted with mantras like “Think Green” (on a green shirt) or “Do Something Good Today: Recycle”.

I was at a department store at the mall the other day, getting clothes for my 7th grader. We smelled perfumes. We looked at shiny new jewelry. We tried on trendy jackets. I commented at how it felt like 1982 all over again, with clunky boots, layered tank tops, cheap chain necklaces and skinny jeans, none of which I could fathom wearing at my ripe age. Yep, there’s nothing like walking through a department store to make you feel dumpy, fat, ugly or old. Almost everything you see is meant to make you feel like you’re lacking in some way.

Anyway, this is when I noticed the t-shirts. They were displayed prominently as we passed the children’s clothing section. “Think Green.” it blared in 150 point type across the flat chest of the manequin. Forget the fact that these shirts represent nothing uniquely sustainable– they’re just thin cotton shirts mass produced in China or Tawain. The idea that a 10 or 12 year old girl would want to advertise her eco-consciousness is saying something.

It’s telling me that her parents are probably making comments and judgments about their own eco-habits. Maybe they talk to their kids about the importance of doing the right thing and living more sustainably. I know, because I talk to my daughter about stuff like this. I tell her the importance of living in harmony with our environment. She knows about recycling and saving energy and reducing pollution. She is young and she is impressionable and she really wants to emulate her parents.

Maybe talking to our children about the importance of living in an ecologically sustainable way and actually putting some of our values into practice is a very important way of teaching them to be better Earth citizens. Making sustainability “cool” is one way of getting a kid to embrace the idea. But how do you get it to stick so it doesn’t go the way of other adolescent fads like break dancing, Star Wars, Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles and feathered bangs?

Also, what about adults? Can going green become MORE than just a fad and actually become part of a person’s value system for the long-term?

The question of how a person makes a psychological shift from feeling detached from what’s happening to the environment to actually wanting to live sustainably and in harmony with it all comes down to one thing: ecopsychology.

Numerous studies have shown that people who care about the environment seem to have one very important thing in common. They identify with nature in some way. Their environment is a significant part of their lives. Perhaps they love to hike and spend time in the mountains every chance they get. Or they lovingly tend to a backyard garden and like to watch birds in their yard. Maybe they take daily walks on a beach to enjoy it’s vastness and to feel peaceful.

People who spend time in nature typically care more about what happens to it.

Ecopsychology studies why we persist in destroying their environment, and what it takes to change the way we think, so the protection and conservation of natural habitat is equal to the preservation of our OWN mental and physical well-being.

I know that the single best way to change the way a person perceives the environment and their place in it is to get them out in nature and connecting to some beautiful aspect of the wild. I also know the best way to bring up my child with the right values is to do things like going on walks with her in the woods, or taking her down to the lake with a field guide and watch the ducks make lazy circles in the water. Sure, it helps that I tell her about recycling and the importance of not being too materialistic and consumed by retail fads. Ultimately, though, the one thing that’s going to have long-lasting impact on her developing mind is the time she spent tending a campfire up in the mountains while watching the sun set over a peak, or standing among pack of mule deer, or having a camper jay land on her hand to swipe a piece of bread out of the palm of her hand.

Those are the moments she’ll refer to when someone asks her someday, “What do you care if they cut down that forest to make room for a new mall?” She’ll care, because she’ll know that no tchachke, trinket or t-shirt bought at that mall could ever take the same place in her heart as feeling that wild bird’s tiny feet grip the tips of her fingers in tender and hungry gratitude.