About a week ago I met the nicest young boy who was visiting the Tom Ridge Environmental Center with his grandfather. As he walked around looking at the exhibits, he was full of questions. It didn’t take look before he spied our lobby photographic display board near the front desk. This board is brand new and was provided by the Friends of the Tom Ridge Environmental Center. Right now it only has about a dozen Presque Isle pictures on it because the weatherman still thinks it’s winter, and getting good photographs is a bit difficult. Once spring finally does arrive, the board will have a constantly changing look at Presque Isle.
I took a little time to show him each picture and explain each one. He was mesmerized by the photographs taken by the remote trail-cam at night or near dawn. One of them captured a coyote howling. He ask question after question about the the woods, plants and animals. His grandfather and I told him all about the park and woods. I said that most likely his grandfather, like me, explored nature including Presque Isle and other wooded areas when we were his age. We talked for over a half hour about the adventures both of us had when we were youngsters.
When we were done, he looked at both of us and said, “How come it was more fun when you were kids?”
I asked what he meant by that.
His answer confirmed to me what I had realized a few years ago. He said, “You talked about playing circus in the woods, playing pick-up baseball, fishing in Presque Isle Bay and some of the nearby streams, building tree houses and other things outside. I can’t do any of those things.”
For a minute I was a bit surprised until I realized that in today’s world, he is right. Sports are all organized. In fact if you try to play a pick-up game on an empty school playground, you and your child will be run off or arrested. Foolish? Sure is. Tree houses, ponds and streams are definitely off limits in our regimented world today. I’d be hard-pressed to find a child doing any outdoor activity that was not pre-planned by an adult. I now realize this boy and actually most of today’s children within the space of just a few decades have lost any way to understand and experience nature.
The Play Station, X-box and computer games have replaced nature in the big picture of a child’s exposure to the natural world. Sure, today most kids are aware of the threats to the environment –yet their physical contact, knowledge of, and their personal contact with nature and the environment is fading, and for many totally lost. When I was a child, I wandered the fields and woods in southwest Erie each and every day. I rode my bike to Presque Isle, Ferncliff and even as far as the back roads of Fairview. Now, I do admit that traffic is much worse today, but back then there were no bike paths, and most country roads were dirt.
Many children in Erie today can tell you about the Amazon rain forest, Yellowstone Park and the Grand Canyon, but I bet if you ask them about Presque Isle and when they have last visited it, many would say never. I found this fact out last year when I was giving grade school children from many of the Erie area schools tours of the Presque Isle Lighthouse. As part of Environment Erie’s Earth Action Student Summit at Presque Isle, I took about 50 kids through the Presque Isle Lighthouse as an educational experience. Well, in fact, I was the one who received an educational experience that day.
Two boys on the tour were full of questions about the lighthouse, but mainly about the woods here, the lagoons, the animals on the park and about Presque Isle in general. As we all talked about Presque Isle, I began to realize that these two had never been on the park. So I had the rest of them raise their hands if they had never been on Presque Isle. Nearly 75% had NEVER been on the park. Now remember, I said just a while back that these are Erie kids. I asked them if any of them visited the bayfront, Frontier Park, Asbury Woods or Erie Bluffs State Park. Almost all had the same answer. NO!
I think our society today is teaching young people to avoid direct experience in the natural world. Just ask a farmer about what city kids know about where their food comes from and he will tell you they think from the store, the freezer, or McDonalds. A client of mine is a grape farmer and he has shown some of these kids his vineyards and they cannot believe that this is where grapes come from. Richard Louv, in his wonderful book “Last Child in the Woods,” says he believes our institutions, urban/suburban design, and cultural attitudes unconsciously associate nature with doom – - while disassociating the outdoors from joy and solitude. He may be right.
We are lucky here in Erie, and with just a little effort, we can teach our children and grandchildren that nature is wonderful by taking them to Presque Isle and using the Tom Ridge Environmental Center as a teaching resource. The cost is right. Free is always good.
See you and a child on the park!!
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