By: Erin Erickson
“Why would anyone want to go walking in the woods? There’s spiders and bugs and its always hot there.”
I heard this remark from a student I tutored last semester after I shared that I would be doing some backpacking this summer. As I glanced at the other kids seated at the table, most seemed to agree that they’d rather spend time at the neighborhood pool or even sitting inside with electronics to keep them occupied. Clearly, these students who lived in urban Knoxville had never encountered the breathtaking natural world found just a 45 minute drive away in Great Smoky Mountains National Park. More than that, however, they had never been exposed to the nature that can be found in their own backyards. For them, “nature” means a far away place where only people such as world-class photographers go to snap pictures for National Geographic. In a sense, they see wilderness as a foreign concept that they can read about in a magazine or textbook, but not something to be experienced in a natural setting.
Unfortunately, the “Eco-phobic” sentiment that these kids have is not uncommon. With the rise of electronics in our everyday lives, people have become increasingly distant from their true roots: nature. Kaiser Family Foundation reports that kids 8-18 years old devote an average of 7 hours and 38 minutes using entertainment media in a typical day, which amounts to more than 53 hours a week (Generation M2). So, while many parents may have grown up turning over rocks or swimming in rivers, their children are not getting the same exposure to the peace that wilderness has to offer. A 2001 study conducted by professors at the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign examined the connection between crime rates and the natural environment and found that children are spending half as much time outdoors as they did 20 years ago. They also found that urban areas (such as inner-city Knoxville) with more vegetation had significantly lower crime rates than those with less vegetation (Sullivan). A separate study conducted in 2005 by Dr. Burdette and Dr. Whitaker of University of California Berkley examined the benefits of children engaging in unstructured play and found that free play benefits a child’s social, emotional, and cognitive development (Burdette). Thus, giving kids such as my young friends in urban Knoxville the opportunity to explore nature in a less structured setting affords them the opportunity to develop a sense of responsibility and stewardship to the lands they inhabit or visit. If children listen to birds in their community park or sit on their front porch in search of spiders, their fear of what is wild and free will be replaced by a connection to the surroundings. Hopefully, the couch in front of the television will be replaced by a peaceful spot in the backyard as they learn that this Earth is their home to explore, enjoy, and take care of.
So what does this research have to do with the Class of 2016? Before I started the program, I did not feel anywhere near the same amount of responsibility to the Earth that I do now. Though I had been hiking many times in many places, I don’t think I had ever found a true “peace” in nature. Through backpacking trips the past two summers and in my own time in the woods, I gained an amazement of wilderness that developed into a sense of responsibility. Through getting to know the land you explore, you can forge a strong bond and sense of place that enables you and motivates you to care for that special crevice of nature. When I see some trash on a trail in the Smokies, I want to pick it up because I regard the Park as my own home. And when I see some interesting fungi, I want to share it with whoever is around me so that they can learn something new and amazing about the natural world.
In a sense, I was very much like one of the kids in urban Knoxville who did not have an appreciation for the outdoors before I came to Tremont and learned about environmental stewardship through the Class of 2016. One of the things that I shared with some of the young students I was tutoring that day was that they can find nature anywhere and learn to love and take care of it the way that I have grown to love and take care of places in the Smokies. Honestly, I am not sure that any of them actually changed their outlook on connecting with nature. Odds are, they are not outside exploring the community park or searching for critters in the grass. However as they come of age, I hope that they begin to lose their fear of the natural world and embrace it. I hope that as they venture outside and see what our Earth has to offer, seeds will be planted and they will mature into naturalists, explorers, and environmental stewards that will share with their own families and peers what it means to know nature and take care of it too.
Burdette, Hillary L., and Robert C. Whitaker. “Resurrecting Free Play in Young Children.” Archives of Pediatric and Adolescent Medicine 46-50 159.1 (2005): 46-50. Childrenandnature.org. Children and Nature Network, 10 Nov. 2006. Web. 3 July 2014. .
“Generation M2: Media in the Lives of 8- To 18-Year-Olds.” Kff.org. The Henry J. Kaiser Family Foundation, 20 Jan. 2010. Web. 05 July 2014. .
Sullivan, William C., and Frances E. Kuo. “ENVIRONMENT AND CRIME IN THE INNER CITY Does Vegetation Reduce Crime?” Environment and Behavior 343-367 33.33 (2001): n. pag. Outdoorfoundation.org. May 2001. Web. July 2014.