I recently read an article that was published in The Independent (linked at the end of this post). The author talks about the trend to reconnect children to nature. He also talks about the limits we place on kids connecting with nature. He calls it “the don’t touch culture”. As I read it, the author postulates that looking is all well and good but to really connect you need to touch as well. I have to admit, he has a point. I have been to dozens of “don’t touch” museums and after a time your eyes glaze over. You feel separated, a distant onlooker, from the thing you are viewing. It applies to historical sites, a friend talked about being able to touch some of the objects during a recent visit to the Anne Hathaway house in Stratford-on-Avon, it was evident from her words that touching things was a high point of the museum.

If the delight in touching inanimate objects at an historical site exists, it exists in at least equal measure for living things in nature. I spent most of my youth outside and I picked, poked and prodded everything I came across. I totally agree that kids need to engage with nature using every sense imaginable. In the closing paragraph the author extols us to: “pick the common wayside flowers, gather wild nuts, berries and mushrooms for the pot, and take home interesting bits of dead wood or fossils. We could capture caterpillars and tadpoles, build wigwams out of fallen wood, and play games with elder stems or plantain guns. The wildlife can take it. And we would become freer, happier, and in the long run, more aware of the plight of nature and ourselves in a perilous and rapidly changing world.” I agree, we would be freer and happier in the long run.

The thing is, I don’t think the wildlife can take it.

Many of them need those mushrooms, berries and nuts for food, the bits of wood for shelter and the peace to be left alone to get on with their lives. With a world population of 6.7 billion people (up from the 3.6 billion in 1970, the year I started high school), we can’t all explore hands on, taking things with us, and have anything left to love. We will have loved nature to death doing that.

Further more, in the last 40 some years the way we do things has changed greatly. Small family farms have given way to large, commercial operations that maximize productivity at the expense of diversity and the health of the local environment. The focus of modern farming is the large, single crop plot. Often these crops, hybridized for the most yield, are vulnerable to pests and disease which is is countered by heavy uses of chemicals. Habitats are ever more fractured by intensive farming, increased building and roads. Some wild life will do well in the presence of people, foxes are an example. Others will not and, when their habitats become too fractured will cease to breed because they do not have enough territory to support themselves and their off spring.

So. What is the answer to this dilemma? I believe strongly that children need unstructured, unsupervised play that encourages curiosity and hands on exploration. I believe that we live in an over crowded, over developed world that is putting ever more stress on the other creatures that share our ecosystem. I have to believe, even though I don’t yet have the whole answer, that these two things are not irreconcilable. What about you?

The Independant: Getting close to nature: It’s time to grasp the nettle