Introducing kids to nature: Small is beautiful

I felt like a wimp. A friend had invited my boys and me to explore Parfrey's Glen, a state natural area 60 miles away -- and I had backed out at the last minute, quailing at the prospect of an hour-and-a-half drive into the country with two rowdy preschoolers and a kindergartner. There'd be missed naps, unfamiliar bathrooms.... I shuddered.

Later, somebody told me that hiking into Parfrey's Glen is like entering a mysterious, green otherworld, where water courses down mossy rock walls and a wonderful coolness tinges the air. Had I deprived my kids, and myself, of a magical experience simply because getting there sounded like a pain?

I was uneasy about this, until I remembered Big Bend National Park in Texas. Or I should say, until I remembered not remembering it. Mixed in with my selfish desire to avoid a hassle at Parfrey's Glen was a fuzzy instinct, born of experience, to keep things simple when it comes to introducing my kids to nature.

When I was growing up, our military family was stationed around the country and overseas. My parents loved sampling the cultural phenomena and natural wonders unique to every region. In New Jersey, we frolicked at the shore and visited big-city museums. In Hawaii, my sister and I took hula lessons. In West Texas, it was rattlesnake roundup, horseback riding and Big Bend.

Big Bend is said to be one of the most stunning national parks in North America. I wouldn't know, even though I visited it with my family when I was in grade school. To get there, we drove for hours through mesquite-studded flatlands where nothing moved -- except tumbleweeds. The brushy balls rolled out of the fields and bounced merrily across the highway, causing my dad to swerve sharply and my sister, brother and me to giggle as we fell against each other in the back seat. To this day, I remember nothing about Big Bend State Park except the tumbleweeds we spied from the window of our car, hurrying lightly along on their own journey, crossing paths with us briefly as we drove and drove.

It was always a mystery to me why I couldn't remember the breathtaking panoramas of Big Bend. Now that I'm a parent, I've discovered that grandeur and vista are often lost on children.

When our boys were born, my husband and I couldn't wait to share our love of hiking with them. We started with short walks through the UW Arboretum and graduated to longer rambles along northern wilderness trails, where you'd think the towering primeval evergreens would cast long shadows in their minds. But our boys, now 5 and 6, seldom look up. Whether they're skipping along an Arboretum path or passing through virgin forest, they're focused on the ground -- poking their fingers into soft, brilliantly green moss cushions, turning over logs to look for salamanders, watching the slo-o-w progress of a slug on a wet rock.

Considering Parfrey's Glen in this light, I had to admit that while the place is surely beautiful, odds are my boys would pay more attention to some caterpillar crawling around the parking lot than to the green wonder of its geological forms. We can tool down to Madison's Glenway Children's Park on our bikes and make just as many exciting discoveries, maybe more, because this "wild" neighborhood park is familiar to them.

Glenway Children's Park was designed as a natural playground by landscape architect Jens Jensen. The idea was that kids would clamber over fallen tree trunks and hunt for butterflies. It has fallen into neglect and been restored to some semblance of its former self several times in the last 55 years. These days, you could walk right by it and never know it's there. Once you find your way in, though, there's evidence of the Dudgeon-Monroe Neighborhood Association's caring hands at work: Paths are visible and the limestone council ring is in good repair. Best of all are the signs of children at play in the woods: forts cleverly constructed from sticks, bark and logs, homemade bridges spanning the narrow ravine.

"I've come to realize that a few intimate places mean more to my children, and to others, than all the glorious panoramas I could ever show them," writes naturalist Gary Paul Nabhan in his essay "A Child's Sense of Wildness." Nabhan had visions of his children's awestruck wonder as they toured the vast "geological jumble" of northern Arizona and southern Utah. Instead, he noticed that while the adults spent time "scanning the land for picturesque panoramas and scenic overlooks," the kids were on their hands and knees, looking for "bones, pine cones, sparkly sandstone, feathers, or wildflowers."

For me as a child in West Texas, Big Bend was too huge to leave a lasting impression. But I vividly remember the horned toads living in the gravelly shade of the boxwood hedge by our house. Easy to catch, these fierce-looking little lizards sat in our palms and allowed us to stroke their backs in one direction till their spikes lay down like cat fur. I can still recall the papery feeling of their bellies, and the prick of their sharp toes on the skin of my hand. Once we'd caught several, my sister and I set them down in houses made from shoeboxes, where they scuttled through toilet-paper-tube hallways and peeked obligingly through cut-out windows. They were gentle and harmless and an endless source of wonder and fun. I trace my interest in the welfare of snakes and amphibians to my horned-toad friends.

We nature-loving parents can't wait to reveal the world's great natural beauty to our kids. We want them dazzled by waterfalls, snow-capped peaks, a canyon as big as a country -- and we want their wonder and appreciation to start happening now. The loss of wild places to development, combined with greater parental fear about letting children wander, has distorted our sense of what children want and need from nature.

"In the past, kids played hide-and-seek in tall grass and caught frogs in the creek," says Kathe Conn, president and executive director of the Aldo Leopold Nature Center in Monona. "For most families, that's no longer a daily reality."

The primary goal at ALNC is to connect children with the land, through a 10-acre patchwork of child-scale habitats. In less than an hour, a child can wander through a prairie, a wetland, a savannah and a woodland, and never be more than two or three minutes from the bathroom.

"With the rise of virtual information, kids know a lot about everything, but they're experiencing it less," Conn says. And yet "wilderness can be found under a single log in the forest -- a rich, magical world, right at our feet."

Kathy Miner, who runs the UW Arboretum's Earth Partnership for Families program, organizes educational tours of wild areas. The tours are a great way to learn how and where to look for wildness, as well as what not to do (like stir up anthills with sticks). But, Miner says, we need to save room in our lives for simple, unconstructed parent-and-child meanderings.

Wandering with her own small boys (now grown), Miner explored the winding Arboretum trail around Ho-Nee-Um Pond, a Lake Wingra backwater. Easily accessible now through restoration efforts, the trail was jungly and mysterious back then.

"There's an enormous silver maple in the middle of the trail with a split trunk kids can climb into," she recalls. "We called it the Fortress Tree." They had names for other spots as well. Dancing Sands. Stone Circle. Anybody who's followed this urban wild path knows what the names mean. The springs still bubble just below the Wheeler Council Ring, inviting wanderers to step off the asphalt and explore.

And the Fortress Tree? It's still there too. A neighborhood friend and her son introduced it to us as the Magic Tree. If you find it, don't hesitate to boost your child onto the flat "floor" in the center of this old, water-loving behemoth. You won't be able to squeeze into the little room-inside-a-tree yourself. But for your child, it'll be a perfect fit.

Look for the wilderness "right under your feet." You may be amazed. A hosta in our tiny yard, dug up for replanting, yielded an entomological wonder last summer. Stirring under a moist leaf was a polyphemus moth, larger than a child's hand, with thick stubby antennae and indigo eye-spots on its fawn-colored wings. Sluggish in the daytime heat (they're night creatures), the moth allowed its picture to be taken and its identity confirmed (a good reason to keep field guides handy).

We didn't need to drive to Parfrey's Glen to see that. Someday we will make that journey, and I have no doubt there'll be a memory in it for each of us. Meanwhile, we've been keeping tabs on some chickadees fluttering in and out of a hollow tree stump down by Lake Wingra.

Last Child in the Woods: Saving Our Children From Nature-Deficit Disorder by Richard Louv (Algonquin Books, 2005)

The Geography of Childhood: Why Children Need Wild Places by Stephen Trimble and Gary Paul Nabhan (Beacon Press, 1994)

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