The importance of getting out in nature — Good Parenting


Dear Dr. Debbie,

I want my children to be comfortable in the out of doors but I’m wondering how to balance my protective parent self with the inner child in me who just wants to get muddy in the creek with my kids.

Natural Science is Natural

Don’t miss last week’s column Rough transitions at at age 3 — Good Parenting

Dear NsiN,

Hooray for you! Yes, happy is the child who has nature as the backdrop for childhood memories.

This is the rallying cry of Richard Louv whose book Last Child in the Woods – Saving Our Children from Nature Deficit Disorder brought attention to the many losses our society is suffering as children are spending less and less time outdoors. The book sparked a movement to get children back outside. Louv’s recent book, “The Nature Principle – Reconnecting to Life in a Virtual Age,” cites personal experiences and groundbreaking research to further promote the many benefits of spending time in nature including creativity, mental acuity, good health, good communities and good economies.

Some of my favorite memories of childhood involve catching critters such as butterflies, fire flies, turtles and more. Most were promptly released or escaped on their own. A few, alas, met a regrettable demise in a baby food jar. Mother Nature kept the score pretty even as we also got “caught” by tics, mosquitoes, ants and bees. Skinned elbows and knees were par for nature’s course. It was considered a heroic and compassionate act to rescue a baby bird or squirrel and nurture it until it could return to the wild of our suburban neighborhood. So much adventure.

I was marginally aware of, but thankfully never a victim of, water moccasins, black widow spiders, rabies, lockjaw, allergic reactions to bug bites or poison ivy, and other hazards of the natural world. Now as an adult, I marvel at the lack of worry, or the lack of knowledge, that enabled our parents to let us loose for hours and hours.

I know there was much wisdom gained from experience and other outdoor enthusiasts (mostly other children, but also camp counselors and scout leaders) to support my perpetually positive approach to the outdoor environment. We learned about “leaves of three, leave it be” and “no poking hornet nests.” Such caveats and others can be passed on to one’s children in a teachable moment. Raise awareness of natural hazards without raising fear.

Balance your knowledge of hazards — and how to avoid them — with your eagerness to help your children get excited about discoveries – biological, ecological, meteorological, mineralogical, etc. in the woods, meadowlands, creek beds and other splendid educational/ recreational settings.

To put your parental paranoia at ease, review and refresh your nature knowledge. If you’re not confident of your competence, research the wildlife and potentially poisonous plants in your area. You might hook up with local nature programs. Rangers are full of up-to-date information about the perils of their parks which likely have similar flora and fauna to your neighborhood. You can find age level appropriate programs at state parks and many county parks. Or join a group with a keep-em-outside agenda such as a scout troop. Chesapeake Outdoor Group, a more casual commitment than scouting, has a nice checklist of things to bring or to just keep in mind when you venture out with your children and schedules family meet-ups in local outdoor places.

When you’re ready to plunge headfirst into a nature experience with your children, such as all-day hikes, remote cabin rentals, camping out under the stars, be the parent whose planning and facilitation takes the nature of children themselves into account. Advice from The Big Outside blog of Michael Lanza includes recognizing children’s limitations of endurance, short intervals between snack and the surprise factor. A picnic spot, hiking trail or campsite should include some amazing features — climbable boulders, caves, waterfalls, tide pools, fields of wildflowers, etc. In other words, make it fun.

Until your children prove to you that they have gained enough of your wisdom, make excursions a family affair. As the adult in the party, you will see what the children may miss such as slippery rocks, unsteady logs or camouflaged animals and can alert them to sidestep the dangers. Specific advice for a safe and satisfying creek wading venture is offered in a travel blog by Jamie Rein. Proper shoes and careful stepping are key.

It is after all, a balancing act – between the reasoned caution of adulthood and the unbridled exuberance of childhood.

Dr. Debbie

Deborah Wood is a child development specialist in Annapolis. She holds a doctorate in Human Development from the University of Maryland at College Park and is founding director of the Chesapeake Children’s Museum. Long time fans and new readers can find many of her “Understanding Children” columns archived on the Chesapeake Family Magazine website. You can find her online at

What do you think? Leave your thoughts in the comments or submit a question to Dr. Debbie at [email protected]