by Dr. Oakleigh Thorne, II
Oak Thorne holding a Yellow Warbler as Sedona Joy Crouch looks on.
As the founder in 1954 of Thorne Nature Experience (formerly Thorne Ecological Institute), for 60 years I have followed the development of environmental education for children and youth. Having grown up surrounded by nature, I am well aware of the impact this has had on my life and work. At Thorne, we continually strive to “connect kids to nature.” They need it! Children today are spending more time indoors sitting in front of a TV or computer and much less time, or no time at all, in nature. To some, nature is to be feared and avoided. What a tragedy!
Contact with nature from a young age has shown to be important for the physical and mental health of children. Key people I have met, such as Steve Kellert, Richard Louv, David Sobel, Louise Chawla, and Joseph Cornell, have all stressed this important connection. It would be good for you to read what they have to say. They would all agree that continual, direct, hands-on experiences in nature help young children form an emotional bond with the natural world. These young folks grow up to have respect for the environment and become good stewards of the earth. They want to take care of it in a positive way. We have indeed seen this over and over again at Thorne. It gives us hope for the future.
Children should be allowed to have free, unstructured playtime in nearby nature… perhaps even in their backyard, schoolyard, or in a neighborhood park. Some things that bother me, however, are the “look, don’t touch” and “always stay on the path” rules that are often strictly enforced in our parks and open spaces.
Kids naturally want to run in the field, climb trees, build forts and “fairy huts,” wade in the water, make mud pies, lie in the grass, pick up sticks, turn over rocks…all kinds of activities of their own imagination and creation. Where can they do this if such things are always forbidden?
At Thorne Nature Experience, we often discuss these matters and do all we can to counter the “restrictive attitude” of so many of our officials. We know that “free play in nature” is an important key in early childhood development. Very young children love to see, touch, smell, and feel nature in every way. They should be allowed to do so, and we need to provide places where they can.
At Thorne, we have a mini-wetland where kids can collect all kinds of critters, such as water beetles and dragonfly nymphs. We put these in white pans of water where they show up well because they are usually dark in color. After studying them closely, the children put all these specimens safely back in their watery home. It’s a wonderful hands-on activity. We also allow the children to run around freely with butterfly nets and catch all kinds of flying insects, which are again released after being studied.
We have a Federal Bird Banding Station at Thorne and I love to catch and band a finch or blackbird and show it to the children so they get a chance to touch and pat a wild bird. Older students actually learn to handle and band birds in a special summer camp class.
All of us at Thorne Nature Experience are proud to be celebrating our 60th anniversary. It’s been an exciting journey!
Dr. Thorne is founder and honorary president of Thorne Ecological Institute in Boulder. They have helped “connect kids to nature” for more than 55 years. For more information about Thorne Natural Science School classes for children, check www.thornenature.org or e-mail email@example.com or call (303) 499-3647.