This holiday season, I have three wishes for kids everywhere: that they can find Wonder, Inspiration and Hope in the world around them. I was lucky to have all three while I was growing up. You can’t get them at any store. You can find them in nature. Here’s how:
When I was a kid, I found Wonder in the open field and woods behind my house. They weren’t particularly large, but still offered boundless opportunities to play, to explore, and to have childhood adventures. My brothers and I made forts beneath the boughs of pine trees, swung like Tarzan on vines in the woods, and ran just for the sake of running through the field. These were also places were I was able to discover nature, whether spotting robin nests in the tree tops, looking for monarch butterfly caterpillars on milkweed plants, or following rabbit tracks through the snow in search of a burrow.
Many kids today might not have access to that same kind of open space, but you can still find Wonder in almost any green place. It could be a park, a beach, or even rooftop garden. The key is for kids to have a chance to be outdoors, to exercise both body and mind, and to interact with the nature that is still around them.
You can’t predict when or where you will find Inspiration, but when you do, you don’t forget the moment. For me, it happened in seventh grade science class. My teacher, Mr. Kleis, showed us some pictures of birds that he had taken. One of those birds was a black-and-white warbler; it looked like a zebra bird! Despite all of the time I had spent roaming the field and woods near my house, I had never seen anything like it before. Well that spring, I watched more closely in the woods and found that black-and-white warbler along with many other colorful species that I learned migrated all the way to Michigan from faraway places in the tropics. Today, I think back to that picture and my own subsequent discovery as a defining moment of Inspiration that shaped my life-long love of nature and my eventual career as a conservationist.
Teachers are among the best Inspirers of kids. Other possible sources of Inspiration include camping trips to a National Park, a visit to a zoo or aquarium, or even a nature show on television. As a child, Jacques Cousteau’s adventures on the Calypso fascinated and inspired me to learn more about the mysterious ocean. Exhibits in modern zoos and aquariums can similarly inspire by giving kids a glimpse into the lives of animals from faraway lands. Even as an adult, I was inspired all over again by the dramatic scenery and abundant wildlife I saw when visiting Yellowstone National Park for the first time. Whatever the time and place, nature offers myriad ways to find Inspiration.
My third wish is that kids can have Hope for the future. When I was growing up, the natural environment was in trouble. The local lake was too polluted to swim in. Bald eagles were endangered. The woods where I used to play were suddenly cleared to make space for new development. But I had Hope because of new laws like the Endangered Species Act, the Clean Water Act, and the Clean Air Act. I believed that things could get better, and they did! My local lake is swimmable again. Two bald eagle pairs regularly nest in neighborhood parks near my house — evidence of their dramatic comeback. And green spaces are considered an essential part of most communities.
Despite these and many other significant environmental accomplishments, nature is still in trouble today. Today’s kids need to worry about climate change, water shortages, and habitat loss that threaten their future quality of life as well as that of the world’s plants and animals. Where will they find Hope? They will find it in your and my commitments to protect nature now and into the future through the actions we take and the values we espouse.
This holiday season, please support conservation so that kids everywhere and of all ages can connect with nature and celebrate the gifts of Wonder, Inspiration and Hope.
The author’s brothers (photo above) on a typical day in the “jungle” behind their childhood home. Now all grown up, Jonathan Hoekstra is a senior scientist for The Nature Conservancy.
(Main image: A boy leaps over rocks while on a Nature Conservancy expedition to a remote Canadian wilderness. Source: Ami Vitale/Panos Pictures.)