Fostering a Sense of Wonder

NWF   |   April 23, 2007

Sitting next to me in the left window seat on a recent cross-country flight was an obese ten-year old boy.  His mom put him on the plane to visit his dad living in California.  As soon as our plane reached ten thousand feet, the boy broke out his handheld game player and began a long and intense battle with the invading demons in the gadget.

After a couple of hours, our pilot came on the intercom and said, “folks, off to our left is one of the best views you will ever see of the Grand Canyon.”  I watched the boy.  His eyes never left the battleground on his screen, not even for a second. I was saddened by this boy who was so possessed by an addictive electronic world that had no interest or a sense of wonder in nature.  It occurred to me that I was witnessing an important American phenomenon that is having a profound impact on our children’s future and the future of nature itself.

What is happening to our connection to nature and where has outdoor time gone? There are many signs that something major – something profoundly different — is happening to the basic connection between Americans and the outdoors. The signs are everywhere:

  • In 2005 the Association for Childhood Education International reported that that U.S.children’s outdoor time is down by 50% over previous generations.
  • A study published in Early Childhood in 2004 found that 85% of mothers reported that their children play outdoors less than they did as children. 
  • In 2004 the Kaiser Family Foundation estimated that the average child now spends over 6 hours daily watching TV, playing video games or on a computer.

You might be asking, Soooo? Why does it matter whether or not our kids go outside?  I am concerned that an important connection between being outdoors and caring for nature is being broken. Children who fish, camp and spend time in the wild before age 11 are much more likely to grow up to be environmentally-minded and committed as adults according to Cornell researchers. Their study indicates that participating in wild nature activities before age 11 is a “particularly potent pathway toward shaping both environmental attitudes and behaviors in adulthood."  

When research shows kids are now spending six hours or more hours a day in front of a screen, we all should be worried about that.  National Wildlife Federation’s polling shows that outdoor people like hunters and anglers demonstrate a much higher recognition of the threat of global warming than do the general public.  Let me suggest that the unprecedented threat from global warming has been ignored by people who spend their time in front of a TV or computer isolated in an air-conditioned space.  I worry that we will not address global warming until it interferes with our television reception or until it’s too late.

Out of the window of my home office, I look over Pine Creek valley where nine decades ago, Rachael Carson and her mother often roamed looking for spring flowers.  I can’t help but believe that those hours “a field” had a profound influence on this great conservationist and fostered her “Sense of Wonder.”

Gone are the days when the majority of kids spent hours at a time in the full flush of nature – in unstructured play exploring the hidden wonders under every rock and around every tree. Gone too are the nights when kids sleep under a blanket of stars.

The often spicy and challenging political commentators, The Dixie Chicks convey the need to be connected to nature this way in the verses of their popular song, “Cowboy Take me Away.”   

“I said I want to touch the earth, I want to break it in my hands.

I want to grow something wild and unruly…

I want to sleep on hard ground; in the comfort of your arms;

I want a pillow of blue bonnets and a blanket of stars;

Oh it sounds good to me…”

Doesn’t that sound good to you too?  Kids need to be outside for their own physical, emotional and mental well-being.  We all need to be reconnected to nature for the renewal of our minds and for the future of conservation.

What will become of wild places, if our children like the boy on my plane know little of the mystery, the grace, the interconnectedness of all living things?   We only save what we love and we only love what we know. 

Let me share one more closing thought, spending time in nature gives us a more vivid multi-sensory experience as we absorb inputs through our ears, eyes, nose and fingers.  Our memories are made the richer and more durable by multiple stimuli. We literally absorb the place as it absorbs us.

As a child, I spent many hours a field with my father who was a dog trainer and hunter.  My father died more than thirty years ago, yet when I go to the woods and smell a familiar plant or hear a distant crow on a crisp fall morning, my memories of being with dad come flooding back in rich detail as if it were yesterday.  In those moments I can hear his voice clearly and I can see his ruddy face in the golden light of an early morning sun. I cherish those memories.

Make memories in nature with children.  They will scarcely remember watching television with you, but they will hold on to their experiences in the wild for a lifetime.  To get more involved out-of-doors, see our website: 

Published: April 23, 2007