By Karen Wyman
Are the days of neighborhoods filled with the voices of children riding bikes, building forts, climbing trees and playing ball in the yard gone forever? It seems that this unstructured outside play that was once a hallmark for many of our own childhoods has nearly ceased to exist. In this age of addictive video games and captivating electronics, do kids even want to go outside and explore their natural surroundings anymore?
Thanks to Four Winds Nature Institute, our Williston children do. Since creative free play outdoors is no longer the norm, the Four Winds Nature program at Allen Brook and Williston Central schools is helping to fill that void by tapping into our children’s imaginations and sense of wonder about the world around them.
The Institute’s own mission statement perhaps best describes its strategy and hopefully ultimate impact on our children and community. “We believe people long for a healthy connection to the environment and to each other. Four Wind’s community-based education programs bring children and adults together to explore the natural world. Through these programs, we are helping people of all ages make meaningful connections to nature. It is these connections that will nurture and fuel us all as we work together to address the increasingly complex environmental issues ahead of us.”
Doesn’t it make sense that if we expect future generations to continue to protect and care for the environment that they must first learn to love it and respect it? The Four Winds lessons are presented to children in a way that sparks their inner curiosity. Through puppet shows, games, skits and outside experiments, the children are exposed to a variety of natural concepts. I was amazed to see firsthand how even difficult ideas are presented in such an entertaining yet influential way. My two Kindergarteners passionately explained to me how urban development, like cell phone towers, is ruining migratory flight patterns for birds. I think there are some adults out there who don’t even think about such things! In addition to gaining an appreciation for the world around them, being out in nature can actually improve children’s health.
Child advocacy expert Richard Louv, author of the book “Last Child in the Woods,” has coined the term “nature-deficit disorder” to describe the lack of nature in the lives of today’s children. This phenomenon is often associated with the rapidly increasing negative childhood trends, such as obesity and depression. Bottom line—children need unstructured time and natural places where they can interact with the world on their own and, in turn, exercise their imaginations and their bodies.
I know there are many fears in today’s society about letting children uninhibitedly explore the great outdoors. Just remember, unstructured doesn’t mean unsupervised. Believe me, I am the first one to worry as my children run around the woods behind our house. Ticks, sunburns and rusty nails, oh my! But after I slather them with insect repellant and sunscreen, dress them in long pants and appropriate shoes and make sure they are up to date on their tetanus shots, they are ready to explore! I shudder to think how I ran around outside as a little girl with no sunscreen, no bug spray and in tiny shorts, a tank top and flip-flops and sometimes even (gasp!) barefoot! I think of the rusty swing-sets I played on and the uncovered sandboxes I plopped myself right in. Times sure have changed.
Even though it’s winter, let’s encourage our families to get outside more often. Go on a winter walk and look for animal tracks and try to guess what animal made them. Hang a bird feeder together and identify which winter birds are feeding at it. You can take advantage of Williston’s many nature trails or just trudge around your own neighborhood. Catamount Outdoor Family Center also offers a variety of activities all year long. Their mission statement, “to promote family and community well-being through activity and education in a natural environment” is exactly what I’m talking about! Have your family “unplug” this weekend and go cross-country skiing or snowshoeing. (This means actually outside, not a Wii or Xbox version!)
I don’t expect my children to become stewards of the environment overnight, so I am sticking to small attainable goals. Remember being outside playing an intense game of “cops and robbers” or kickball with the neighborhood kids and hearing the sound of the ice cream truck? Everyone then immediately dashed to their respective houses, begged their parents for money and then quickly returned to buy a treat and then get on with the game. My hope is that for once this summer my kids are already outside when this iconic music plays instead of listening for it from the couch.
Karen Wyman has been a Williston resident for seven years, and lives with her husband and twin 5-year-old daughters.