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  November/December 2000 Features:
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Sierra Magazine
Ways & Means: The Forgotten Family Value

Kids' inalienable right to mess around outdoors

by Carl Pope

What does it say about us when one generation pities the next? While our children's living standards are likely to be higher than ours and their lives even more filled with flashy techno-gadgetry, many of us fear that their experience of nature will be thinner, more constricted, and less fulfilling than our own. There are few people for whom a visit to their childhood home is not a heartbreaking experience, because its connection to the land around it has been broken. Sprawl and malls are filling in the vacant lots and woodlands where we used to play; rivers and streams are culverted, channelized, and barren; and the coasts, lakesides, and mountains are spotted with trophy homes and locked gates.

In losing our contact with the natural world we are losing something precious. In a way, we are losing part of what it means to be human. We evolved in nature, dependent on its rhythms, inextricably connected to other living things. In an increasingly urbanized, artificial world, our connection to that natural world is forged through our experience as children. We learn and grow by climbing trees, catching tadpoles, picking flowers, making mud pies, hiding under hedges. Playing outside every evening until called home by parents and falling darkness, we develop a sense of our human community as part of the wider, natural world.

American children are losing that connection. I grew up in the suburbs, but I walked to school through the woods. My peers who grew up in the city went to the park after school. Outgoing Sierra Club president Chuck McGrady runs a summer camp in North Carolina; these days, he laments, his campers arrive with no special connection to the outdoors. And how could they be expected to make one? Instead of exploring the world, they are chaperoned from school to soccer field to music lessons and home again; they never have a chance to find the hole behind the log where they can hide their special stuff, or the damp spot in the meadow where the butterflies swarm in the summer. There probably isn't a log or meadow within walking distance anyway, and kids don't walk home because their parents fear they might get abducted.

No wonder that our kids are disconnected and alienated from the natural world, when adults have decided that most places outside the car and the home are dangerous and that every hour needs to be scripted. It's rarer and rarer for kids to have access to fields or streams or woodlots or even decent city parks, so instead of joyfully mucking about outside they're offered a physically safe world of video games and television. As a result, nature and place are losing out to the virtual world. Who needs mud puddles when your computer can provide you with dozens of imaginary planets full of gory combat with scary monsters?

But computer screens don't teach you how to cooperate with your friends to get a boost up to that next tree limb, to hop nimbly from rock to rock, or reveal the  mystery of tadpoles turning into frogs. Television still has its nature shows (mostly animals eating each other, these days), but its primary lesson is about consumerism (see "Branding Baby's Brain," page 56). Even those kids who manage to avoid the wall-to-wall commercials disguised as cartoons on Saturday morning are bombarded by marketing at schools that force them to view Channel One, which now purveys "educational" 12-minute newscasts-2 minutes of which are commercials-to one out of four American teenagers.

We can teach our kids to be more than consumers. When we help get them out in nature, they find that they love the real world even more than they love electronic games or visits to the mall. Where schools offer outdoor education programs, they become the centerpiece of the academic year-what kids plan for and look back at, how they measure their own growing up. Shame then on politicians like California governor Gray Davis, who for the second year in a row vetoed additional funding for outdoor education in low-income school districts. Instead, underfunded schools get their environmental materials neatly prepackaged for them from corporations like Exxon, Dow Chemical, and International Paper, whose lesson plan is to teach that U.S. corporations are as environmentally responsible as they could possibly be (see "Reading, 'Riting, and Ravaging," May/June 1998).

The Sierra Club is beginning to address the needs of children and young people, but there's a lot more that we could be doing. Chapters and groups that have focused their outings programs on family excursions report record sign-ups, but our Inner City Outings for at-risk youth still need more volunteers. (If you'd like to get involved, call (415) 977-5628 or e-mail

The Sierra Student Coalition is helping young people find dynamic ways to protect the natural world-but now it's time for the Sierra Club to integrate its youth efforts more closely with those of its chapters and groups. Finally, we all owe it to our kids to make it possible for them to experience the same happy connection to the natural world that set so many Sierra Club members on their present path. That doesn't necessarily mean an ambitious backpack through alpine meadows or watching a mighty whale breaching at sea; it can be as simple as observing a garter snake in the grass or the flight of a butterfly. Nature's still all around us, and who knows? The Earth-defender of tomorrow might start by making mud pies.

Carl Pope is the executive director of the Sierra Club. He can be reached by e-mail at

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