Why we need to abandon the pavement and head for the forest.
We have a problem getting kids (and adults) into nature, and I think one of the causes is nature trails. It’s not a lack of trails we suffer from, but rather too many.
Cities and governments have done a wonderful job preserving little sections of the natural word for our pleasure, but most of these preserves are littered with trails. Some elegant and winding, others nothing more than forgotten utility roads, these trails serve as a portal to the wild. They are a welcome buffer between our comforted development and Earth’s beastly elements. Nature trails are a window, yet a bubble in so many ways. A paved trail in the forest has this obnoxious way of saying, ‘Don’t leave me’ and so we don’t. We graze softly along our fitted track, smelling and hearing and seeing wonders without ever touching. It’s the participation we lack.
Recently, I took my children for an afternoon stroll in a sunny park. We walked and sometimes ran curvy paths around the river bed and through the forest. We took in sounds of spring and felt fresh breezes on our cheeks as while exchanging pleasantries with passing families. It was a lovely afternoon, but I noticed something deeply concerning- not a single foot was laid off the path. Our stride would have been no different had we been in a shopping mall. There my children were in this beautiful place, unengaged and non-participant. I began to wonder how little our feet touch the earth; how seldom we feel life sift between our fingers. Throughout our lives, we build layers between us and the natural world; concrete floors stories high, roads and sidewalks stretched anywhere we should need to travel, the rubber soles of our shoes and tires of our vehicles, all so we never have to touch the ground.
When I bring my children into the forest and off the trail, an amazing world is born to them. What magic and life they will find under an overturned rock is irreplaceable. My children touch things. They explore and imagine a wondrous world. They become a part of nature rather than an observer, and the world is profoundly more interesting on the inside.
If we honestly strive to engage our children more with nature, we need to remove their bubbles. Nature trails serve a good and needed purpose, but children need unrestricted free play in nature as it stands. Once there, children’s imaginations and minds will flourish is ways never possible in the developed world. Nature is good for them in every possible way. Every child should know the feeling of dirt beneath their fingernails, but they will not find it unless they get off the trail.