Nature is not well-defined, it offers challenges not found in the classroom, in video games, or on the basketball court.
There is no answer key in nature, no cheat codes or levels, no winning and losing. There’s no trophies or badges given out by the forest, no likes or approving comments given by the birds and squirrels. Nature is just there, and it will be there whether we choose to interact with it or not.
The objective indifference of the natural world is the opposite of the world most American children inhabit now. As a child, things are directed toward you—the teacher talks to you, the coach instructs you, the video game comes to life only when you interact with it, the computer takes you to the website you type in the search bar—everything is designed and mapped out for you, the young child to follow. Follow the rules, do the homework, do what the coach says, play the video game according to how it’s supposed to be played—it’s all spelled out for you. Just follow directions or look up the instructions and you’ll be fine.
Following instructions and knowing how to find information to solve problems is an important skill for children to develop. It’s not the only set of skills you need as an adult, though. It’s important to develop softer skills like curiosity, imagination, confidence, critical thinking, improvising, and observation. The outdoor natural world is the perfect place to develop these skills.
Our society’s dependence and relatively unquestioned acceptance of criteria, structured lessons, and multi-step programs to guarantee success is obvious. Go to google and type in “steps to success” and see what you find. Just pick one of these articles, follow the 6,7, or 20 steps, and—voila—success! Works every time, right?
Almost every adult knows that there isn’t a roadmap to success—if there is such a thing as defined “success” at all. There are roadblocks, shortfalls, and good and bad luck. There’s location, timing, networking—it all contributes a part in how our adult lives are lived.
Life is unpredictable, yet we raise our children like it is predictable, telling them that “x” amount of practice and studying equals success. Even our video games have clear avenues to success—level up, work your way in a linear upward fashion until you’re at the top of the leaderboard, or you win the game.
While these “steps for success” are an accepted and probably permanent part of our society’s thinking, some room for exploration, creativity, and appreciation of what nature can offer us needs to be included to give context and depth to our children’s lives. In the natural world, there are often multiple paths you can take to get to a place–if you want to take a marked path at all. There’s an endless possibility of activities, most of which have loosely defined rules and guidelines (if they have any rules at all). Interacting with nature, especially as a young child, helps us deal with the ambiguity and the uncertainty that we all face in adult life.
Think back on your life. What happened when you followed the “steps,” and didn’t get where you wanted to go? What kind of coping skills and adaptive skills have you developed if you’ve never wandered, never explored, and never experienced nature in all its apathy and indifference?