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Karen Telleen-Lawton: Getting Back to Nature Nurtures ‘Thriveability’ in Youths

In our virtual world of electronics, the outdoors serve as an outlet to dissolve behavior problems

A few years back I brought some teens from Noah’s Anchorage to hike Rattlesnake Trail. The kids were native Santa Barbarans from troubled homes; most of them had little experience with the outdoors.

The girls spent the first half-hour alternately complaining about the steepness and screaming at the sight of spiders. By the time we approached the first creek crossing, however, they had begun to notice blossoms and butterflies and the serenity of the trail.

We perched on boulders to journal and talk. In that community solitude they seemed engaged rather than disconnected from the world. By the end of our excursion, they had begun to thrive.

Elaine Gibson is familiar with this new-old phenomenon of thriving in nature. As the nature education specialist for the Santa Barbara Museum of Natural History, she calculates that she has shared the museum’s “backyard” with more than 13,000 children in the past 4½ years.

“Nature provides for the survival of human beings as a species,” Gibson says. “We learn to think outdoors. Through unstructured play in natural surroundings, children learn to focus, concentrate, assess risk, problem-solve, create, experiment and imagine.”

She describes the thrill of a kindergartener who ran down to the boulders and stopped short, taking in the oak canopy above and creek below. “I know what this is,” she exclaimed. “I’ve seen it on TV!” Kids call it “real nature,” as opposed to the nature they see on television.

Gibson blames the increasing allure of the virtual world of electronics as well as parents’ desire to keep their kids “safe.” But nature provides for encounters with the unexpected that inoculate children from the germs and dangers of their future. Gibson strives for her visitors to be “as safe as necessary, not as safe as possible.”

Richard Louv, author of Last Child in the Woods and The Nature Principle, is concerned about the disconnection of children from direct contact with the natural world.

“Several studies show that early contact with nature — particularly in the form of self-directed play — is pretty much a requirement for long-term, positive environmental values,” he writes.

Louv recently suggested an alternative term to sustainability for describing the appropriate outcome of environmental actions: thriveability.

“‘Thriveability’ is much more powerful, and helps elevate the focus and actions on higher principles,” Louv writes. “With children, do we just want them to survive or do we want them to thrive — the answer becomes obvious when you focus on the right question.”

Thriveability is a more sustainable concept in terms of dealing with kids’ involvement with nature. Adolescents and adults get discouraged by the seemingly esoteric challenge of dealing with issues such as climate change for which their small actions can seem futile. Focusing on thriving as a human species leads more directly to immediate necessities such as healthful air, water and food. Our minds and bodies need a clean environment to thrive.

Moreover, Gibson finds that behavior problems dissolve away in the outdoors: “How to act in nature is in our genetic memory.” She overhears comments from kids like “I’m in Heaven,” and “This is the best day in my life.” Two even told her it was better than Disneyland.

“I’m seeing kids deprived of natural experience,” she finishes, “but when the table laid out in front of them, they recognize the buffet.”

— Karen Telleen-Lawton’s column is a mélange of observations supporting sustainability. Graze her writing and excerpts from Canyon Voices: The Nature of Rattlesnake Canyon at www.CanyonVoices.com.

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