Children should walk in the woods, often. They should be able to do so fearlessly, knowing how to explore safely, with wonder and confidence. That doesn’t happen enough for kids growing up in urban areas. Recently, I was asked to talk with a group of kids at TR Hoover Community Development Center in Dallas. Despite living near the Great Trinity Forest, I was told that a concern about the presence of snakes kept many of the kids from exploring the woods. Volunteers from Master Naturalist programs thought I could help the kids understand snakes in a more realistic way. I was eager to try to help with that.
There are lots of possible reasons that urban kids might not visit the woods. There can be the fear that dangers lurk in the woods. Some of that can be realistic, and some not so much. When I asked about their worries, one of the children mentioned wolves. I could reassure her that there would be no wolves, but some of the wildlife might potentially be dangerous. Surprise close encounters with feral hogs, for example, or a copperhead half-hidden in the leaves. Kids need to know about watching where you are going and knowing what to pay attention to.
If they haven’t developed the skills that can make a walk in the woods full of delightful discoveries and minimal risk, it would not be surprising. In cities and suburbs, children play inside most of the time, and a lot of that time is spent in front of a screen of some kind. The American Academy of Child & Adolescent Psychiatry reports that elementary school-aged kids spend four to six hours a day in front of games, TV, tablets and phones, and the number is even higher for high school kids.
In 2005, Richard Louv published his book Last Child in the Woods, introducing the term “nature-deficit disorder.” It wasn’t a formal disorder, just a convenient shorthand for the way children – and the rest of us – are becoming estranged from nature. In the years following the book’s publication, a lot has been done to try to address that widening gulf between children and nature. I hope to contribute as much as I can to bringing us back together.
I talked with the kids at TR Hoover about what makes a forest and that we need all the “ingredients” in order for it to be a real forest. I said that most of the snakes they would find would be harmless, but that they should not count on that. The rules I suggested that they follow were:
- Your EYES go first before your hands or feet
- Don’t touch or pick up an animal when you aren’t sure what it is – no guessing!
- If you see a venomous snake – walk away
In other words, never put your hands or feet somewhere until you know what is there. And don’t be quick to touch (I worry that a child will become overconfident and assume that they know something is harmless when it is not). And last, when you see what may be a venomous snake in the wild, there’s no need for panic and certainly no need to kill it. Sometimes a person has a well-intentioned but mistaken belief that they will make nature safer for the next visitor by killing a snake. They endanger themselves when they come in close contact and make the snake panicked and defensive. Killing the snake only opens up a place for another snake to fill the gap left by the dead one.
The kids loved the young bull snake I brought with me. She is a gentle example of one of our biggest native Texas snakes, and most of the children wanted to touch her. I would have gladly allowed this except that having thirty kids touch you (and perhaps a few try to grab you) is pretty stressful for a snake. Toward the end, I brought out a Texas garter snake, a subspecies that Texas Parks & Wildlife Department considers endangered in our state. His three pretty stripes and graceful body charmed the kids and the adults in the room.
I hope these kids are more comfortable and more prepared to get out there and safely explore the woods. I loved their questions and their energy, and would love to see them out there walking on a trail and discovering all kinds of wonderful things in the woods.