Many of my nature-oriented friends and colleagues have some kind of story to tell about their close ties with the outdoors when they were growing up. Sometimes when we get together we all moan about how “children these days” don’t get enough time romping around outside, experiencing mud and worms and streams and all of it.
My own childhood experience allowed me to go effortlessly from my backyard into miles of unbroken forest in the foothills of the Appalachian Mountains of West Virginia. I spent my time swinging on vines, hiking to natural springs, and getting an up-close view of the creatures that lived there. So naturally I get nostalgic about those times and want every kid to have that same experience. What’s going to happen if they don’t and, instead, spend all their time looking at screens?
Carol Kaesuk Yoon makes a good case in an essay in the New York Times that children might be getting inspiration about nature from the Internet, it’s just different …
If the Internet is unavoidable and ubiquitous — and it is — then nature is following right along with it, shining out through screens everywhere. Young people are knowledgeable about organisms in a global way we could never have been as children. They may not often wander the local patch of forest — we won’t let them most of the time anyway — but they wander the natural world through the Internet.
Kids can see lemurs, pandas, lions, insects, and meerkats … in their exotic environments interacting with other creatures that we can’t see around us. The Internet can be an extension of the smaller world that we live in on a daily basis.
Perhaps we can think of the globalization of information as a way of putting our own backyards in context. We can now make our own connections about nature because we can see a greater range of our Earth’s biodiversity at the touch of a button (at least we can see the stuff that people have captured in pictures and videos). Our backyards aren’t becoming less important, of course. It’s still essential to get outside and experience the world firsthand. What’s different is that we now we have easier access to the larger context in which to place ourselves and our local surroundings.
It reminds me of another important experience that encouraged me to become an ecologist and environmental scientist. Sometime in the early 1980s, I watched the entire Life on Earth series. It was narrated by David Attenborough, who alone has probably inspired millions of nature enthusiasts. Life on Earth was some pretty captivating stuff and introduced me to the enormous range of biodiversity that I could never have seen as a kid in my extended backyard. The series planted the seeds of the big questions of biology into my brain: “How did life first originate on our planet?” and “How did life evolve since then?”
So, maybe our greater access to the world can inspire us to understand it better?