The 3,600-acre Fort Worth Nature Center and Refuge is a great place to introduce children to the woods. Photo by Michael Smith.
Sept. 1, 2022
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.
As a herpetologist and author of a children's nature book, I was enlisted by volunteers from the local Master Naturalist group to help the kids understand snakes in a more realistic way. I was eager to try.
There are lots of reasons that urban kids might not visit the woods. They may fear that dangers lurk in the woods. Some of that is realistic, and some, not so much.
When I asked the children about their worries, one of them mentioned wolves. I could reassure her that there would be no wolves.
But I admitted that some of the wildlife might potentially be dangerous. There could be surprise close encounters with feral hogs, for example, or a copperhead half-hidden in the leaves. Kids need to know about watching where they are going and knowing what to pay attention to.
A young copperhead. Photo by Michael Smith.
If kids haven’t developed the skills to make a walk in the woods full of delightful discoveries and minimal risk, it's not 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 and 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.
HOW TO EXPLORE
I talked with the kids at TR Hoover about what makes a forest. I told them a wooded area needs 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. Don't become overconfident and assume that you 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. But they endanger themselves when they come in close contact and make the snake panicked and defensive.
Then there's the vaccum effect — killing the snake just opens up a place for another snake to fill the gap left by the dead one.
The kids loved the young bullsnake named Bailey that I brought with me. She is a gentle example of one of our biggest native Texas snakes. Most of the children wanted to touch her. I would have gladly allowed this except that having 30 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 and Wildlife Department considers endangered in our state. His three pretty stripes and graceful body charmed the kids and the adults in the room.
Children got acquainted with a young bullsnake named Bailey, who provides educational outreach. Photo by Michael Smith.
Because of this experience, I hope these kids are more comfortable and more prepared to safely explore the woods. I loved their questions and their energy.
I hope to see them all out there walking on a trail someday.
I wouldn't want them to miss all the wonderful things in the woods.
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