Congrats to everyone who took home a Midwest EMMY in October! Backroads, airing on Fox Sports North (one of the show’s I produce) came home with an EMMY for best Lifestyle Program! Time to celebrate! #midwestemmys
Note: Watch for the “Minnesota Bound” (KARE-11 NBC) script version of this story, airing April 15th (10:30 p.m. CT) and April 21st (6:30 p.m. CT) Entitled “Last Child in the Woods”
My son has a fort. It’s wedged between two evergreens in our backyard, and houses such treasures as slabs of wood, and an old green army tarp hung by bungee cords for a wall. And while I sometimes sigh loudly at the amount of items that find their way into my son’s fort, I leave it alone. A few years ago my Father told me that a boys fort in nature is his sanctuary and refuge. “Treat it as such,” he warned.
I would never argue that point, as my past childhood memories are steeped in the great outdoors. When I think about it, many of the most cherished memories all involve either a vacation up north or my own fort nestled in a thicket. I want my son to have those memories, too. But I worry the experience won’t be the same. And I’m not the only parent thinking this. There seems to be a growing disconnect between our kids and nature.
According to Richard Louv, author of Last Child in the Woods and the Nature Principle, it’s a phenomenon – and not a good one. It was Louv who first came up with “Nature deficit disorder” when his Last Child in the Woods book came out in 2005. His hypothesis is basically that humans, especially children, are spending less time outdoors.
Why is this happening? The reasons are several, and a few, obvious. One of the reasons I relate to – good old “stranger danger”. It’s the reason I’m sneaking peeks in the backyard to make sure my son isn’t snatched out of his nature sanctuary. Or as Louv so eloquently puts it in his book – the “Bogeyman syndrome”. “Fear is the most potent force that prevents parents from allowing their children the freedom they themselves enjoyed when they were young,” explained Louv, “Fear is the emotion that separates a developing child from the full, essential benefits of nature. Fear of traffic, of crime, of stranger-danger – and of nature itself.” My boundaries growing up included the entire town. Admittedly, my son’s boundaries are tighter. In a 2002 survey by TNS Intersearch for American Demographics Magazine, 56% of parents in the U.S. said that by the time they were 10 years old they were allowed to walk or bike to school – but only 36% of those same parents said their own kids should be allowed to do the same.
But we aren’t just afraid of the “Bogeyman” in the form of a kidnapper. Nature itself can be the Bogeyman. It can be tough for us parents to loosen the leash, especially with being bombarded by bad news via the media. But keeping things, including nature, in perspective is always a good rule of thumb. “We may fear the outdoors, but kids generally face more dangers in their own home,” explained Louv.
The loss of wild surroundings is another factor. In more and more cities and suburban neighborhoods, it can be tough to find green. But green can be found – it just might require some looking. And it’s worth it – a team study by researchers in Sweden, Australia and the U.S., found that when children played in an environment dominated by play structures rather than natural elements, the kids established social hierarchy through physical competence. But just offering a grassy area with a few shrubs, and the kids engaged in more fantasy play, and their social standing became based less on physical abilities and more on language and creativity skills. And a bonus: open play also provided greater opportunities for boys and girls to play together in egalitarian ways.
Even if you find a park or nature preserve, kids are seeing more restricted access. “Do not walk off the trail” one sign recently blared at me at neighborhood park. Everyone understands that the natural environment must be protected, but Louv questions the cost of that protection in some instances, and the direct impact it has on the kid’s relationship with nature. Even environmentalists and educators, he points out, say “look but don’t touch”. Sometimes that’s the only way to learn, especially for kids.
And a third obvious cause, of course, is the increased draw to spend time inside, aka: screen time, including computer, video games and television. The average American child spends 44 hours a week with some form of electronic media. Can you imagine what that number will be 10 years from now?
The effects of this are sobering. Our kids have a limited respect for their natural surroundings. Louv points out that this will be an even bigger problem a few years down the road. “An increasing pace in the last three decades, approximately, of a rapid disengagement between children and direct experiences in nature…has profound implications, not only for the health of future generations but for the health of the Earth itself.”
Research has shown that people who care about the Earth when they are adults spent time in the natural world as children. GreenHeart Education stresses that we owe it to our students and kids to give them unmediated time in Nature, so that, as one Native elder explained, “the land will remember them” – so they will feel grounded and have a sense of “home” that they care about.
Another effect of nature deficit may be the development of attention disorders. Louv suggests that going outside and being in the quiet and calm can help kids. “It’s a problem because kids who don’t get nature-time seem more prone to anxiety, depression and attention-deficit problems.” As a Mother of an ADHD son, this research is worth watching. Some tips include encouraging your child to play in outdoor green spaces, study or play in rooms with views of nature, or plant and care for gardens and trees at your place of residence. Louv explains that although the impact of nature experiences on attention disorders and on wider aspects of child health is in its infancy and easily challenged, it’s not to be brushed over. “Yes, more research is needed, but we do not have to wait for it. If, as a growing body of evidence recommends, contact with nature is as important to children as good nutrition and adequate sleep, then current trends in children’s access to nature need to be addressed,” said Louv.
Childhood obesity is another growing problem, and about 9 million children (ages 6 – 11) are overweight or obese. (The Institute of Medicine) It’s time for kids to move more, which means getting up off the couches and heading outside and away from screen-time. Period. Blogger Marc Bekoff of Psychology Today, said it may be an up-hill battle for parents, but it’s time to get kids away from their couches, computers, desks and other electronic devices. “We need to rewild our children before it’s too late,” he stressed.
While my generation may have been the first to experience Atari and MTV, we also still played kick the can, fished in creeks, and had more free-roaming boundaries outside. It’s time for parents and Mother Nature to work together. While some good works are already taking root, such as environment-based education movement, a simple-living movement, and schoolyard greening, there’s always more work to be done for the cause.
With luck, our kids will realize their sense of purpose in this cause. After all, I can only hope that, someday, my son will want his own children to have an outdoor fort. A refuge, a sanctuary. Army tarp and all.
Some fun ideas to get things going with the cause!
Got dirt? A truckload of dirt costs about the same as a video game, so how about buying a load and throwing in some plastic buckets and shovels?
Plant some native plants, or maintain a birdbath. Invite some native flora and fauna in your kid’s life.
Revive some old family traditions. Collect lightning bugs at dusk, and release them at dawn. Collect feathers or leaves. How about crawdadding? (tie a piece of bacon on a string, and drop it into a creek or pond. Wait until a crawdad tugs)
Encourage kids to go camping just in the backyard. But them a tent or help them make a canvas tepee and leave it up all summer. (Join the NWF’s Great American Backyard Campout – www.nwf.org)
Tell your kids stories about your special childhood places in nature, then help them find their own. Encourage kids to build a fort, hut or tree house.
Combine tech with nature and go digital –with nature photography that is. Digi cameras save money on film, and are decreasingly expensive.
Go on a moth walk. It sounds weird, but it’s worth it. Mix (in a blender) overripe fruit or wine, and blend in honey, sugar or molasses. Go outside at sunset and spread the goop on a few trees or untreated wood. Go back when it’s dark, flashlight in hand, and see what you’ve lured. With luck, you’ll probably find moths, ants, earwigs and other bugs.
It’s Minnesota, so in the winters build an igloo or snow cave, or go sledding, snow tubing, or snowshoeing. Stay outside!
Fun Outdoor quotes to think about:
“Not everything that counts can be counted. And not everything that can be counted counts.” – A sign over Albert Einstein’s office at Princeton University.
“It takes a universe to make a child, both in outer form and inner spirit. It takes a universe to educate a child, a universe to fulfill a child.” – Thomas Berry
At any time, it is estimated that there are some 10 quintillion (10,000,000,000,000,000,000) individual insects alive. Eeeek. Its no wonder that some bugs, at large, can freak folks out. Especially kids.
“They are so different from us,” explained Dr. Bruce Giebink, Entomologist,”When you take a look at them, close up, they truly look like creatures from outer space.
And Dr. Bruce should know. Known as Dr. Bruce the “Bug” Guy, he has built a successful business creating education shows for kids that include hands-on, live bugs.
He said that a lot of it is the fear of the unknown. “A lot of times, they surprise people,” he said, “They can cause a startle response. A lot of people really do not know a whole lot about insects. And, they may not be very good at identifying them, so they kind of put a blanket over all bugs. Since a few of them can hurt you, they are over cautious when they don’t know about something.”
Dr. Bruce put on his bug presentation for my son, Hayden’s birthday one year. Being that the room was full of young boys, you could feel the excitement in the air. Boys and bugs. Nothing better, right? They ooed and aahed over the hissing cockroaches, and got a close up look at a scorpion. But they all recoiled in horror when Dr. Bruce brought out sweet “Rosie”. Well, in their defense Rosie is a big Tarantula. Their eyes watched warily as her hairy legs slowly moved up Dr. Bruce’s arm. But in time, Rosie won them over, and by the end of the program, most boys had no problem holding her right in their palms. However, when one of his large Praying Mantises flew out of his hand and landed on my son’s head, all cool-headedness was forgotten, and chaos ensued. Don’t worry, though. Remarkably, the Praying Mantis made it back into his cage un hurt.
So what’s the deal with bugs? What seem to be the “scariest” bug, that really shouldn’t’ be scary at all? Dr. Bruce rates them on their scale of size, scariness, and your likelihood to encounter them right in your backyard:
#1 – InfraorderAnisoptera- (aka: The Dragon Fly)
The Dragon Fly: Dr. Bruce said he would put the dragon fly has number one on his list as a creepy looking bug that’s misunderstood. Dragonflies are a large insect, and especially here in Minnesota, they’re around a lot. If you look at them close up, they look intimidating. And if you pick them up, they’ll thrash around. And they do nip you, although Dr. Bruce said they seldom break the skin. Even if they did, they don’t have any venom or anything that’s harmful. “More than anything, it startles you,” explained Dr. Bruce, “they don’t attack people. Their territorial, and if you walk in their territory, they will buzz you.” He said the next time you see a dragonfly buzzing around the yard, keep in mind that it’s a very beneficial insect, which most scary-looking predators are, he pointed out. They eat a lot of flying insects, including mosquitoes, and biting gnats. If you live around water, ponds and streams and rivers, where the water quality is good, you are going to have your share of dragonflies.
#2 – Euborellia annulipes (aka: The Ear Whig) You might not know the name, but if you live in Minnesota, you see them. They are a fearsome looking but that is around a half inch to 3 quarters of an inch long. But the kicker is they have scary looking pinchers on the tip of their abdomen. “You would think, just because of the name, that they have something to do with your ears,” laughed Dr. Bruce,” in old times, folks believed they would crawl in people’s ears and cause lots of problems. Not true.” Dr. Bruce explained that 10 to 12 years ago, they were not common west of Michigan. But with Minnesota’s higher humidity levels lately, and more humid hot summers, it has been favoring the ear whig. They have been expanding steadily westward. Do they bite? Well, they can pinch, according to Dr. Bruce. “It’s not anything that amounts to much. It’s a defensive maneuver. They’ll pinch you if they need to protect their life.”
#3 – Tabanidae and Chrysops (aka: Horse Flies and Deer flies)
Everyone has had their battles with number three on Dr. Bruce’s list, especially around mid summer in Minnesota. If you’re around a swampy area, on a hot summer day near the edge of the woods, they will downright drive you crazy. “They can be extremely annoying,” admitted Dr. Bruce, “and they have no finesse. Their mouthpart is like a little dagger, and they don’t wiggle it in, like a mosquito, they jam it in. And they like to land right on your head. Some kids might think they have a dangerous bite, but they don’t. All kids have different comfort levels with it comes to bugs.” He further explained that horse flies and deer flies aren’t shy about the fact that they’re after a meal. And if there’s not a deer or other blood source around, people will do just fine.
#4 – Dolomedes Tenebrosus (aka: Fishing Spider: known as nursery web spiders: they do not build webs)
While spiders as a whole might be number one on most people’s list, Dr. Bruce wanted to hone in on a specific spider that loves Minnesota…and its boats. Nothing says Minnesota more than the name “fishing spider” right? Fishing Spiders are one of Minnesota’s largest spiders. They have fairly long legs, and a number of them have a striped pattern on them. They can vary quite a bit in color, ranging from a light grey to black. Dr. Bruce said most Minnesotan’s are sharing their boats with these little creatures. “You’re bound to find them in and around water, quite often right when you hop into your boat,” he said. How big? Well, the body isn’t that big, but when you factor in the leg length, they can be around 3 inches long. And they can move fast. “Some kids may think they’re a brown recluse spider, and they may think they are common here, but they are very very rare. But then again, any spider that has fangs that are sharp enough to bite and long enough to penetrate can give you a bite. We have such individual variation in our immune system on how we react. Some don’t react at all, while some puff up quite a bit.”
While we all know deep down that most bugs are harmless, there’s always a few that aren’t.
“There’s only a handful of bad ones that kind of spoil it for all the rest,” said Dr. Bruce, explaining you want to minimize your exposure to these. Dr. Bruce said to keep an eye out for this “bad” bug come spring time, even though he says their not a true insect but still in under the bug category. And Minnesotan’s know all kinds of them: Arachnids in the order Ixodida (aka: The Wood Tick and the Deer Tick).
Dr. Bruce said last year they weren’t quite as bad, but a few years ago they started showing up as early as late March and early April. He said the Wood Tick (or American Dog Tick) is the bigger ones, around the size of your little finger nail. And they’re the ones that Fido likes to pick up in the backyard. The really concerning one is the smaller of the two, the Deer Tick, especially the little nymphs. “They’re really small, and the nymphs are basically the immature stages of the deer tick. And the deer tick is not big to start with.” Still send the kids outdoors, but take some precautions. If your wading through the woods, try to stay on the path where the grass is short. And try tucking in your pants into your socks. “You’ll look like a dork,” he laughs, “and if you wear light pants or khakis you can see them better and flick them off before they get to you.” He also added that DEET is a very effective repellant, but it is not recommend that you spray DEET directly on your child’s skin. He recommended spraying it only on clothing, especially pants.
Mainly, Dr. Bruce said to remember that most of the time bugs get a bad rap. “I want to educate kids and adults alike,” he said, “as a society its kind of us against the bugs. If people learn to tolerate and co-exist, I think a lot of creatures in the natural word, insects included, would enjoy the outdoors more.”
All I know is, regardless of his praying mantis moment at his birthday party, my son likes to buy Praying Mantis pods every spring, and plant them in our flowers pots by the front door. He’s going on 15 years old now. Go figure.
Publication: MN. Parent
Grief and Kids
Contributing Writer: Kelly Jo McDonnell
As I stood in the quiet Iowa cemetery, I watched my 10-year-old son as he flitted around my Father’s tombstone. Grandpa had suddenly and unexpectedly had an aortic aneurism this year, and before we knew it, was gone from our lives. My sons Grandpa was a larger than life personality, and while I wrestled with my own grief, I worried about the large void left for my son, who was 10 and had been very close to his Grandpa. The whole experience was so sudden and a blur, and I wondered if I had traumatized his grief process since I was still running to catch up with my own.
Out of the corner of my eye, I noticed Hayden catching the glowing fireflies that had popped out during the twilight hours. He was cupping them to his mouth, saying something, and then releasing them into the air. As I shuffled closer, curious, I over heard him whispering to the fireflies “Protect Grandpa”, before releasing them. That bittersweet moment is etched into my memory, and for some reason, left me feeling a bit more peaceful. Perhaps Hayden was coping better than I had thought. Better than his Mother, anyway.
Grief is a tricky business, for both adults and children. And let’s face it; nothing prepares you for this business until your knee-deep in it. But don’t make the mistake in thinking that kids don’t grasp the grieving process. Kids can grieve at any age, and it depends on their age, developmental stage and life experiences.
Inez Bersie-Mize, a licensed family therapist with Midwest Center in St. Paul, agrees that the child’s age makes a big difference. “Their cognitive abilities, and the ability to understand and comprehend makes a big difference,” she explained, “around 7 and 8 they still have that magical thinking, that the person could come back, or that ‘Grandpa looks like he’s sleeping’. It’s very common for that age to have that thinking. Their capacity to tolerate pain, and whom they have around them also makes a difference. Their relationship to the person who died comes into play. Kids are very tuned into their sense of pain, and if they think the person died, had a great deal of pain or trauma, then they’ll have a harder time getting over it then someone who died in their sleep.”
Come to think of it, son Hayden’s first questions about Grandpa’s passing was pain-related. Questions such as “Did it hurt?” “Did Grandpa know what was happening to his heart?” Other kids, who have witnessed someone battle an illness, deal with different questions. When Molly Sproull lost her Father to bone cancer, her son was 6 and daughter was in 3rd grade. “My Father was in hospice, so we all knew it was coming,” Sproull remembered, “So Ben got to say goodbye. I didn’t really pay much attention growing through the process. He was on his best behavior (during the illness) because of what I was going through. But after the funeral, that’s when he really started acting out.”
Sproull said the calls from teacher started coming soon after the funeral, and involved throwing objects and reacting to other kids. “I look back, and I realize he was grieving,” said Sproull, “he was just not himself. I always tried to answer his questions (about Grandpa) without scaring him. It was hard. My daughter Abby had more tears. She understood a bit more, and I didn’t really see any negative reactions with her. She was more Mothering to me, asking if I was OK. She recognized I was grieving, even as a 3rd grader.”
Bersie-Mize said that’s the fine line that parents must walk while going through their own grief process. “It’s better to explain it then to hide it,” stressed Bersie-Mitze, “they need to know what’s happening, what the wake will look like, and have a choice to go or not to go. They need to be informed. A lot of kids fear crying, but when everyone else is crying, it helps them make that decision. They need to be informed.”
Brent and Christie Cuttell, Cottage Grove, are advocates of being informed. Brent lost his Father last year after an extended illness, and the couple’s three children range in age from 7 to teenagers. “Kids grieve in a similar sense that we do, but it’s more pronounced. Everything a child does is more pronounced…they are louder and faster than we are, and their minds are sharper,” said Brent Cuttell, “youngest son Camden was 7 and a half when Grandpa died. He’s a visual kid, so whenever he sees a red hat, like his Grandpa Cuttell used to wear, he gets emotional. He’ll say ‘I miss Grandpa’, or “That guy in the red hat looks just like Grandpa’. They figure out that stepping stone – you have a Grandpa, you might even have a Great Grandpa. Now that Grandpa’s gone, that void is filled with Dad or Mom. That stepping stone and known, rock solid entity is gone.”
Christie Cuttell, who is a social worker at Psyche Recovery, Inc. in St. Paul, says her knowledge of the grief business helped her cope with her own family’s journey. “Americans are horrible at death and dying,” she explained, “we don’t like to talk about it, we don’t plan for it, yet it’s the only thing that is absolutely sure. It’s very frustrating when you work on death and dying. The more open we are with our kids and each other, the smoother it is going to go.”
She said youngest son Camden’s grief comes and goes in short waves and bursts, usually associated with visual triggers. “At first he was very careful not to grieve in front of us,” remembered Christie, “he didn’t want to upset people more. But when he went back to school and the teacher had given him an assignment to write about feelings, Camden could only get through 2 sentences, before he burst out crying. I do think kids generally grieve better than adults. They are not at all selfish. Their genuine, and to them, it’s very literal.”
The Cuttell’s said their older teenagers took on a different grieving pattern. “Myles, being the boy, was more non-verbal,” remembered Christie, “but his actions were kinder. He was not causing trouble, and would let things go that he usually wouldn’t. He was just quieter. Daughter Abby just cried her brains out, night and day. The teenaged kids had a very difference connection with Grandpa, as they are so much older than Camden. They saw Grandpa healthy, and he wasn’t sick in their memories.”
“Some of it is really just talking with them,” explained Bersie-Mize, “it really is. It’s OK that it hurts or that it’s scary. It’s OK to say those things to kids. The more they are involved in the planning, the better. It’s important not to exclude them from your own grief. Explain how you feel inside, so they don’t feel alone or isolated.”
Through the whole process, watch for warning signs of something deeper than “healthy” grief. “Watch how long they are staying in grief,” explained Bersie-Mize, “and if they are functioning in school and with friends. Are they isolating, or getting angry. Things like that should not be ignored, and sometime professional support is needed.” Other factors to watch include inability to sleep, or loss of appetite, acting much younger for an extended period, repeated statements for wanting to join the dead person, or excessively imitating the deceased family member.
She went on to explain that it wasn’t until around the 1950’s or later that children were included at all in the whole grieving process, and until then was kept very separated from the whole ordeal. “Including them in the process, perhaps picking out flowers, or writing poems to put in the casket, are all closure activities. Talk about how sad it feels, and the hurt inside. Let them see the tears.”
With our family, we included all the grandsons as much as we could in the planning, and communicated what would be going on during the wake and the funeral itself. Hayden had the choice of viewing Grandpa during the wake. He sat in the back of the church in the last pew for a short time before making up his mind and marching up the aisle resolutely next to me. We also let each of the grandsons choose a “Grandpa treasure” from his dresser, and they all carried them in their pockets during the funeral. I noticed Hayden rubbing his Grandpa’s favorite pocketknife during the funeral.
After our visit to the cemetery that day, Hayden asked if Grandpa had known we were there visiting him, or if he was too busy up in heaven.
I guess only the fireflies and Grandpa really know the answer to that question.
Kids books that help cope with grief:
The Fall of Freddie the Leaf – Leo Buscaglia
The Next Place – Warren Hanson
The Old Coyote by Nancy Wood
Papa’s New Home – Jessica Lynn Curtis