Marin Independent Journal – Connecting Kids With Nature

As I sit here in West Marin watching the birds and other animals in the woods in back of our home and thinking about my next hike in Point Reyes, it seems as though it should be unnecessary to extol the importance of connecting children in Marin to the wilderness.

This isn’t inner-city Detroit or downtown San Francisco. Yet I’ve become increasingly aware of the relative absence of these experiences from the lives of many kids, even in nature-rich Marin, and of the way in which these experiences, both with their families and through schools, enrich their lives.

The absence of this connection and sense of place it helps develop can create a problem in healthy child and adolescent development.

Many of the special schools I’m familiar with that focus on helping kids at risk include a significant wilderness experience. At Eagle Rock School in Colorado, all students go through a rite of passage, an initiation, something which mythologist Joseph Campbell noted has been lost in our contemporary urban and suburban worlds.

They go on a 21-day wilderness trek in which they literally hold each other’s fates in their hands and learn how much they need to be able to work together. They also develop a deeper connection to the earth.

I was struck by a comment of actor Peter Coyote who, in discussing a retrospective showing of Akira Kurosawa’s classic film “Dersu Uzala,” about a man who is a product of the wilderness, noted the importance of remaining connected to the wilderness, and pointed out that civilized man suffers by comparison. “All of our ‘advantages’ from another point of view, actually weaken us, have softened our physical bodies and weakened our characters.”

There are many high schools throughout the country for which outdoor education serves as a short-term, high-impact therapeutic alternative to help get troubled teens back on track and develop a sense of personal responsibility. The wilderness serves as the ultimate teacher that teens cannot manipulate. The therapeutic aspect combined with the adventure of the wilderness camping experience has been highly effective in transforming the attitudes and behaviors of adolescents.

While of course most Marin adolescents are not in need of therapy, there is considerable evidence that an increasing and significant number of our adolescents are indeed at risk. Adolescent suicide levels are much higher than they should be. Schools and parents would do well to consider that educational programs should have a preventative component that will connect adolescents to the wilderness.

Screenwriter Stephen Schiff, who grew up in Littleton, Colo., the site of the infamous Columbine shootings, wrote in the New York Times about how Littleton had lost a sense of place and a sense of character, all replaced by what he calls “Mallland,” an “anonymous commodified” landscape. Wrote Schiff: “In this world meaning evaporates; in a world of monotonous getting and spending, the need to shake things up, to make a markÉ.any mark, may overpower everything else, including sense.” Schiff then went on to say that while many blamed media violence and the easy access to guns, he thought something else was also at work here. “Children who grow up with a sense of place and character know the difference between gunfire on television and real gunfire; they know the difference between the fake deaths of movie actors and the final deaths that can be inflicted on others. [This tragedy]. may have stemmed from a loss of perspective that might be one of the unforeseen consequences of a loss of place.”

Too often our high schools have nothing to do with character or place and are very much part of that anonymous monotonous landscape. Too many of our children are more familiar with the mall or local town square than they are with the paths of Mt. Tam or the straits of Drake’s Estero. They need to connect to these places.

I highly recommend that educators and parents take a look at Richard Louv’s wonderful book “Last Child in the Woods: Saving Our Children from Nature-Deficit Disorder,” for its concrete suggestions on what both parents and schools can do. I would also suggest that they take a look at the programs created by places like Eagle Rock and the Aspen schools, programs that could be modified and mainstreamed to fit the kids of Marin.

Our children need this in their lives.

Mark Phillips of Woodacre is a professor of secondary education at San Francisco State University. He is a regular contributor to Marin Voice.