One of my favorite childhood memories is being surrounded by cows, chickens, horses and dogs in Michoacan, a small state in Mexico. Having been born in Chicago I rarely saw such animals (with the exception of dogs). I not only felt happy, but safe to be in such close proximities to the them and have the freedom to either pet or play with them. Although at the time I did not know it, the experiences I got in Michoacan such as carrying a small puppy on the inside of my shirt and getting filled with fleas or collecting the eggs laid by hens, contributed to the formation of my personal environmental beliefs.
As children, we experience both direct and indirect experiences with nature and wildlife. It may be in a variety of different ways; in one’s own backyard, on a camping trip, fishing or at a sanctuary or zoo. Direct experiences are those in which the child is experiencing nature more physically and curiously, whereas indirect childhood experiences are a little more restrictive and guided. No matter the experience, it lends way to the formation of our environmental beliefs as Julia Corbett wrote about in “Communicating Nature: How We Create and Understand Environmental Messages.”
Something I have noticed since reading what Corbett wrote is the way children interact with their surroundings. What I have noted is that childhood experiences vastly range from country to country. From the first day we arrived in Australia I have seen children from all ages out and about, more than I have back in the states. When I am in Mexico, I see the same. And how they seem to interact with the nature and wildlife around them is more of a direct approach then indirect.
Just hours after arriving to Sydney we were walking through Darling Harbour and saw kids enjoying their lunch while sitting on a field surrounded by birds and others interacting with the flora and fauna found in the Chinese Garden of Friendship. I loved seeing so many schools and families out with children and immediately thought of the importance of doing so especially in the digital time we are in now. In Brisbane, at the Lone Pine Koala Sanctuary is where I was the most amazed by all the interactions children were having with their natural surroundings. They would fearlessly chase turkey’s, be among kangaroos and extend their arms to pet the animals. I even saw some parents encouraging their young ones to get closer to big emus and other species! It brought the biggest smile to my face because it reminded me of when I was young.
Back home I do not see as many children being so interactive outdoors or even being out for that matter. My nieces for example have hardly had any experiences with nature, direct or indirect. The oldest is 11 and youngest is 6. They are never outside unless it to get to school or to the car to go somewhere and it breaks my heart because when I was their age I would be quick to get all my homework done so I could then go outside and play.
One of the reasons my brother and sister-in-law do not let them go out and play is because they live near a busy street and are afraid they could be hurt by traffic. Another is that they do not want them getting scrapes, bruises or bit by anything. I can see where they are coming from, they are just worried and want the best for my nieces but at the same time I disagree with the approach they are taking and believe that they could take them to a park or even an aquarium or zoo to play and learn.
Another thing that I feel prevents children from fully understanding nature is what they learn in school. In a curriculum, not a lot relates to nature or wildlife. And although there may be some excursions that allow children to go out and explore the natural world they live in I do not believe that there are enough.
Seeing groups of school kids (at least once a day while we were in Sydney) and parents with their children outside whether it was at the sanctuary, on a ferry, at a park or on a pier really allowed me to see another glimpse as to how children in different parts of the world are experiencing nature.