When we were hiking on a very muddy forest trail last weekend, A. found a big fuzzy caterpillar. He was terribly excited, running back and forth along the trail, shrieking, “Look! Want to see my caterpillar again? See how cute it is? Try petting it.” His enthusiasm was so infectious that I held back my usual response: “OK, now it’s time to let the caterpillar go.” My instinct is always to protect the animals and insects that he and his brother find or dig up, but on that day I was struck with a thought – that perhaps my boys (and all children, for that matter) sometimes need to ‘entrap’ nature in order to learn how to appreciate it.
It seems that the children who spend a lot of time playing outdoors and engaging in the many activities that go along with being outdoors – baiting chipmunks with peanuts, catching frogs and fish and putting them into buckets, peeking into birds’ nests, collecting chrysalises, caterpillars, and insects in glass jars, netting butterflies and moths – are the children who love and feel most comfortable in nature. A few critters might get squashed, over-handled, or neglected in the process, but I suspect the end result makes the sacrifice worthwhile. Those children grow to be adults who value the wonders and beauty of nature, who want to spend time outdoors, and who want to work to protect the environment.
By contrast, there are other children who are raised, perhaps inadvertently, to fear the outdoors. Nature is bubble-wrapped for them, handed out in small, sterilized doses, and is always mediated by a parent who also fears nature. They grow up disliking it, feeling intimidated by its immensity and unable to appreciate its complexity. They don’t like to get dirty and handling critters makes them squeamish. As adults, they probably feel no pressing urge to protect nature through policy-making and activism because they have no personal connection with it.
Of course I’m generalizing with these stereotypes, but these were the thoughts running through my mind as I watched A. love his fuzzy caterpillar friend to the point of near-death. He kept dropping it, picking it up, cradling and stroking it, jiggling it in the palm of his hand as he ran. The caterpillar came home in the car, got lost briefly, was found between the car seats, and got deposited on the picnic table. The caterpillar initially played dead, curling up in a ball, but eventually it unfolded itself, peed, and crawled all over A.’s hands and arms. Finally we insisted that he return the caterpillar to a leafy branch, which he did reluctantly. Even though that was a week ago, A. is still talking about that caterpillar. It made a big impression on him.
The scientific observer effect says, “You cannot observe or measure something without changing it.” I can see how that principle applies to my children. They interact with the world in a tangible, head-on, physical way that leaves its mark on everything they touch. A leaf, a tree, a pile of dirt, a line of crawling ants – everything is at the mercy of their boundless curiosity. All I can do, short of keeping them indoors, is to make sure that their curiosity remains respectful while they grow to become nature-loving adults.