Insects could be the answer to a nature deficit

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“I like to play indoors better ’cause that’s where all the electrical outlets are.”

Those words, by a fourth-grader in San Diego, are the essence of Richard Louv’s 2005 bestseller, Last Child in the Woods: Saving our Children from Nature-deficit Disorder — kids today spend too much time indoors and too little time outdoors.

From the age of 8 to 15, during summer vacations, I’d get on my bike after breakfast, and I’d return home in time for supper. I spent my days playing baseball, fishing, swimming, exploring the woods, and catching turtles, snakes, and frogs. But times change.

Not so any more

Even in the 1980s and early ’90s when my daughters were growing up, my wife and I never just turned them loose. They could roam our woods, but they had to stay within the sound of our voices. The world had become too dangerous to allow kids to roam freely. This is Louv’s lament.

How can kids appreciate the outdoors and connect with nature when nearby wild places are hard to find and parents are afraid to give their kids independence? I recall one afternoon when Nora was about 7 (she’s now 26). Both she and the dog disappeared. After about 20 minutes of panic-mode searching, I told my wife to call 911.

Real scare

Just then, we heard Nora singing as she and Jenny came skipping down the road. She had been exploring through some dense roadside vegetation and worked her way back to the road about a quarter-mile from the house. She never heard our frantic calls and whistles. That was the day I began to appreciate the gravity of society’s nature deficit.

If I couldn’t feel comfortable letting my kids roam freely in our own woods, how could I expect parents in suburbia, towns, and cities to just tell their kids to, “go play in the park.”

Last Child in the Woods brought national attention to this problem. It inspired hearings on Capitol Hill, state legislation, and innumerable programs at nature centers to get kids outdoors. Virtual fishing and birding video games are simply no substitute for the real thing.

Help is available

Over the last five years, much progress has been made on this front. And a 2008 revision of “Last Child” includes 100 actions that parents, grandparents, siblings, teachers, and others can take that will instill a sense of the wonder of nature. It’s great information, and I recommend it to all concerned about our children’s disconnect with nature.

As I pondered this problem, I thought back to the dinosaurs and insects that triggered my wild side. Dinosaurs were nature’s superstars, but they were available only through toys and books. With insects, I got to deal with living creatures.

Insect curiosity

My fascination with insects peaked when my older brother had to make an insect collection for a high school biology class. Our mom made an insect net, and we spent days catching insects. I couldn’t believe that variety of grasshoppers, crickets, beetles, bees, butterflies, moths, and flies that lived within a stone’s throw of our house.

Years later, I did the same thing with my daughters. They, too, marveled at the diversity of life in our own backyard. That’s my specific recommendation for triggering a kid’s connection to the natural world. Hook ’em on insects.

Fishing and birding are great, but they require more expensive gear and knowledge. That will come later. But anyone can catch insects. All that’s needed is a good net and an enthusiastic adult. (A high quality sweep is available at www.acornnaturalists.com for less than $40.)

Gather a lot

Sweep a good insect net through vegetation just a few times, and you’ll have scores of insects to study. Lessons can cross all disciplines.

Sort them

Identify them. Count them. Listen to them. Draw them. Keep a journal. It will soon become apparent, even to children, that many insects eat plants, and many animals eat insects. The interconnectedness of life is obvious.

And 25 years down the road, a new generation of parents from all walks of life will know the cure for nature-deficit disorder.

About the Author

Scott Shalaway, who holds a Ph.D. in wildlife ecology from Michigan State University, writes from his home in rural West Virginia. A former faculty member at Oklahoma State University and the University of Oklahoma Biological Station, he has been writing a weekly nature column for newspapers and freelancing for magazines since 1986. Send questions and comments to scottshalaway@gmail.com. You can also visit his Web site, http://scottshalaway.googlepages.com. More Stories by Scott Shalaway

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