by John DiDiego, Education Director. Photos courtesy Great Smoky Mountains Institute at Tremont.
Tremont’s educational program is a thing of beauty. We get kids discovering the national park, we meet state education standards, and we boast a professional staff that creates a safe learning wonderland for kids of all ages. We teach people how to enjoy the outdoors in a responsible way that minimizes impact on the land. All of this makes good sense and fits well with our mission of connecting people and nature while fostering stewardship of the park.
But every so often, I worry. I am afraid that this by itself is just not enough. I think about my childhood and how it shaped who I am today. And here’s my confession – I definitely was not ‘responsible.’
I was a kid. I killed stuff. I chopped down trees (with a very small hatchet), carved sticks, burned bark with a magnifying glass, built forts, and captured snakes, lizards and any other reptile or amphibian I could get my hands on. I learned a million things: rocks are hard, crayfish in a jar overnight die, wet red clay is slippery, water snakes usually bite when grabbed (brown snakes don’t), and how to climb trees or balance on a log.*
“I think about my childhood and how it shaped who I am today. And here’s my confession – I definitely was not ‘responsible.’”
As a result, I felt a kinship with the land, I felt a sense of ownership and belonging – so much so that when ‘my woods’ were eventually leveled for a church and a parking lot, I was angry and hurt, as if a part of my identity was gone.
Recently, I was leading an activity with hundreds of kids teaching about watersheds at a local water festival, and I couldn’t help notice that (a) the kids were out of their element just sitting on the ground, and (b) they were having a ball! My lesson plan included a wrap-up that encouraged water conservation, but by the end of the activity, it was clear that something else was needed. I heard myself telling these kids to go out and dam up creeks, get dirty, look under rocks, and build forts.
How can we expect kids to protect and conserve a land for which they have no connection? Before they can protect it, they have to know it. As adults who love kids and the natural world, we need to get them out in it, and to be open to the fact that they need to be kids, break things, and yes, occasionally kill stuff. At Tremont, we will continue to conduct educational programs and do our part to protect this magical park, but we need everyone making it okay for kids to be kids.
As Robert Michael Pyle wrote in his essay Eden in a Vacant Lot (2002), “For special places to work their magic on kids, they need to be able to do some clamber and damage…[they need] little patches that are not manicured, planted, controlled, or protected, but are close to home and available for kids to play, as they please.”
*These are the kinds of things that, in years past, most kids learned just by growing up. No one had to teach them.
John grew up catching snakes and turtles in the creeks of upstate South Carolina. He has a BA in English Literature from Notre Dame and an M.S. in Natural Resources from the University of Wisconsin-Stevens Point. In over 15 years experience in environmental education, he has worked in places as far-flung as New England, Georgia, Yosemite NP, and far eastern Russia. He enjoys hiking, biking, kayaking, turning over logs, and playing/singing folk tunes.
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