The Public Policy Institute of California, a prominent San Francisco-based think tank, has released a study that presents a sad and alarming picture of how many modern children view the natural world. Somehow, it seems, children are growing up so disconnected from the outdoors that they view it as alien and monotonous.
In a reverse sense, I can almost understand this. When I first moved to San Francisco, I was about 7 years old, and the city was quite a shock. I previously had been accustomed to spending most of my day outside, sometimes on the street where I lived but just as often roaming the fields or woods, either alone or with friends, only reluctantly returning home when it was time for lunch or too dark to see well. The majority of boys I knew did pretty much the same, and as far as I can recall, all the kids and grownups thought this was perfectly safe. San Francisco, on the other hand, was barren, dull, foreign and frightening to me when I first arrived. The bus woke me up every time it went by the house at night. There was only building after building after building — where *was* everything?
These kids must feel similarly disoriented when confronted with an actual wild place. But how sad for them to live in a bubble that other people have made, without even knowing what they’re missing.
I’ve come to appreciate the value and allure of cities, and their potential to receive population growth in a way that’s more sustainable than sending sprawl to the edges of the wild places, but I’m grateful that San Francisco has such a wealth of high-quality open space around it. I don’t know whether I’d be able to live here without this resource. In spite of the heavily urban character of the Bay Area, the Golden Gate National Recreation Area, the East Bay Regional Parks District and the Midpeninsula Regional Open Space District — among other organizations — preserve and oversee lands that make it possible for residents to still immerse themselves in the natural world.
This is important because, as the saying goes, we protect the things we love. And we don’t love what we don’t know. Children who don’t know and love nature will see no reason to protect it when they grow to adulthood.
Parents who love the outdoors and were regular hikers or campers before starting a family probably don’t need much prompting to bring the kids along for family outings. Those kids will know the sounds of birds as well as they know the theme songs of their favorite cartoons. But for everyone else, there is plenty of help, and places in which to introduce kids to nature are not far away.
One organization I know reaches children who don’t get many opportunities to see a wild animal: San Francisco Nature Education (I know a little about it since I’m a member of SF Nature’s board of directors). SF Nature gives public-school kids in some of San Francisco’s densest urban areas the chance to learn about birds — a form of wildlife accessible even to city-dwellers, once they learn how to notice them.
Many of the local open-space organizations have activities oriented toward children:
“Last Child in the Woods” would be the popular book to which to direct readers at the moment, but let’s take a different tack. People who don’t know the natural world won’t understand what’s wrong with the increasing worldwide distribution of a few cosmopolitan species. Indeed, they may not even notice that anything has changed. Two great books that do take notice are “Out of Eden: An Odyssey of Ecological Invasion,” by Alan Burdick, and “Last Chance to See,” by Douglas Adams.