Thinking about kids, nature, consequences

Published 9:29 am Monday, June 16, 2008

Over there, an older man, whiling away the afternoon weeding his garden. He’s retired, now, and has time on his hands. He thinks he might go fishing this evening.

Over here, a young boy, watching TV. He’s on summer vacation and bored. He’s only been fishing a few times but enjoyed it. He begins to imagine himself reeling in a big one.

The older man and the young boy do not know each other. But what if they did?

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We’re changing here in Minnesota, right along with every other state in the country. We’re getting older and more diverse and our young people today don’t spend as much time outdoors as their parents and grandparents did. That state of affairs provides both challenge and opportunity.

For various reasons, kids today are more likely to be holding a remote control in their hands than a fishing rod. One reason for that is kids don’t have the opportunities to pursue outdoor recreation activities the way their parents and grandparents did. Adults are busy, busy, busy and too often no one is there to teach and take the kids on outdoor adventures. Therein lies a challenge.

We of the baby-boomer generation are retiring in waves and at younger ages than our predecessors. Baby-boomers have for decades been the lifeblood of outdoor recreation and conservation in Minnesota. Many boomers continue to hunt, fish, camp, hike or simply enjoy watching wildlife. For many of those, passing down the heritage of outdoor recreation that defines Minnesota in so many ways is increasingly important. Therein lies an opportunity.

As a kid growing up in southern Minnesota, I was fortunate to have a father, uncles and other adults who were happy to have me tag along on hunting and fishing trips. I learned to “camp” by throwing blankets over the backyard clothesline and spending the night outside with my brothers or friends. We’d use flashlights to search for nightcrawlers, catch lightning bugs, tell scary stories and munch on snacks until we’d finally fall asleep.

Minus those youthful experiences, I suspect I might never have developed the passion for the outdoors that I have today. How many young boys and girls are there today who will never develop a passion and sense of adventure for the outdoors simply because they have no one to show them the way? What if the older gentleman weeding his garden and the young boy fiddling with the remote got to know each other?

Changes in outdoor recreation participation is a major trend that the DNR has been working hard to address for years. Special “take a kid” hunting and fishing events have been instituted. Thousands of youngsters have participated in Department of Natural Resources’ MinnAqua Program to learn about fish habitat and the sport of fishing. Geocaching in Minnesota State Parks is a new sporting activity growing in popularity. Environmental education programs are offered in schools across the state.

These DNR events and programs, among others, help. Numerous other organizations are doing what they can to get kids involved in the outdoors, as well. But more is needed. Too many young people remain indoors, fiddling with remotes. According to a growing number of children’s medical and mental health experts, the absence of nature in the lives of young people is having dire consequences in terms of physical, intellectual and social development.

The challenge is getting kids outdoors. One possible opportunity to help meet that challenge could be baby-boomers and others with time on their hands. But, where and how to bring them together?

Communities, perhaps, might have an interest in promoting a program in which local boomers and other interested adults take kids fishing on certain days. Maybe there are opportunities to develop kids fishing ponds in or near a community. The possibilities are limited only by the limits of people’s imaginations.

While DNR Southern Region staff has been trying to come up with inventive ways to connect more young people with nature, we know there are many creative and concerned individuals out there who have good ideas of their own. We would love to hear them. Contact (507-359-6014) if you have suggestions or would otherwise like to become involved in this important issue.

In the meantime, consider the words of Dr. Suess, “Think left and think right and think low and think high. Oh, the thinks you can think up if only you try!”

Tom Conroy is an information officer for the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources.