Why Staying on the Trail Is Bad for Nature

Is encouraging kids to treat nature as fragile and untouchable doing more harm than good?

Stay on the trail. Look, don’t touch. Take only photographs, leave only footprints.

These and similar rules have become a standard component of a refined environmental ethic; any reasonable outdoor education class is going to emphasize them.

I have a confession to make: As a kid I violated every one of those rules, frequently and without guilt. It made me a conservationist.

I roamed freely through the woods and fields. I caught lightning bugs. I turned over rocks to find crayfish. I trapped tadpoles in cups. I followed animal tracks. I built forts and dammed creeks. I dug holes. I chased things.

None of this lessened my respect for the natural world. Quite the opposite. Instead, I wanted to spend every minute I could out there. It started a lasting love for wild things and wild places that has never abated. I suspect I’m not alone in this.

In contrast, a lot of today’s outdoor education focuses on facts, often presented in the context of the earth’s doom and gloom future. An underlining message of this is that nature is separate from humanity and oh-so fragile, something we must never mess with. While the information may be alarming, it’s hardly the way to instill love. It instead makes nature boring, even dreary.

You probably have heard the complaints that kids are not playing outside, are not interested in the natural world. There’s even a term for this, coined by Richard Louv: Nature Deficit Disorder. And yet we insist on putting barriers up so that kids will not want to play in nature. I believe that free and wild play in nature is one of the missing ingredients in building a viable, effective conservation movement.

A young boy gathers cones near Mineral King Ranger Station in Sequoia National Park in California to celebrate the National Park Service’s Centennial. Photo © Nick Hall

I’m not alone. Paleontologist and science communicator Scott D. Sampson spends a lot of time on this in his excellent book How To Raise A Wild Child. He notes:

“Fearing that we must protect nature and kids at all costs, we often do more harm than good. Nature connection depends on firsthand, multisensory encounters. It’s a messy, dirty business – picking leaves and flowers, turning over rocks, holding wriggling worms, splashing in ponds. Lacking such experiences, children’s growth is impoverished and they’re unlikely to care for, let alone protect, natural places.”

Conservation writer Emma Marris says that many of these well-intentioned rules endanger “the simple, unsupervised messing about in the woods that so many older adults remember fondly.”

In an article for Slate magazine, Marris writes of a boy who gets in trouble for taking gravel from a state park. Another ranger sees this and realizes, “More than feeling empowered or excited to protect the natural world, now he is going to associate going to state parks with getting into trouble.”

Children search for aquatic life in the river at Davis Bend Nature Preserve in Hart County, Kentucky. Photo © Mike Wilkinson

I can already hear the protestations: One kid catching frogs may not hurt anything, but what if every kid did it? Can’t you see the damage caused by unauthorized trails ripping through the wilderness? Doesn’t the natural world have enough to deal with without a bunch of people trampling it?

Such questions raise valid points, of course. Certainly no one advocating a more hands-on approach to nature believes that every national park should be a “free for all” where kids and adults do whatever they want. Conservationists like Sampson and Marris never suggest kids pick endangered wildflowers or rip up sensitive habitats.

As kids, my brother and I caught and kept pet turtles. I would not do that with my son. With many turtle species in decline, keeping them as pets cannot be justified. In an increasingly crowded world, the reality is that there has to be regulations to protect wild things and wild places.

At one point in Yellowstone and other national parks, feeding bears was a favorite way to “connect” with nature. Today, we recognize that this activity is just plain stupid. It results in dead bears and dead humans. I’m not suggesting that everything we did in nature in the “old days” is justifiable today. Far from it.

John Helzer looks at a plains garter snake found on a gravel road on a warm spring day. Photo © Chris Helzer/TNC

But what I see is this: For many environmentalists, the “look but don’t touch” philosophy has become a rule for its own sake. It doesn’t matter if a habitat is full of rare species or a weed-infested hillside, kids should not bother nature. Ever. And this indeed does more harm than good.

There is a 1970s science fiction novel by John Crowley called Beasts. Despite some outdated notions on genetic engineering, it should be required reading for all conservationists. In it, humans have just suffered a massive calamity. The remaining people decide that they’ve wreaked enough havoc on earth, and use their technological prowess to construct a giant, self-sustaining tower.

All humans live in this tower and never leave, for any reason. They leave the rest of the planet to nature. This way, people can no longer muck things up.

When I first read this book, I considered this a version of dystopian hell. I have slowly realized that, for many environmentalists, the vision in this book is aspirational. A prevailing philosophy is that we need to leave nature alone.

Young girl by the Ohio River at Louisville Waterfront Park in Louisville, Kentucky. Photo © Devan King/The Nature Conservancy

I see that even in comments to this blog, nearly every time I write about interacting with nature. If I write about fishing, I get notes stating it’s cruel. If I write about hunting shed antlers, I’m depriving rodents of their nutrients. Even a story featuring tips for spotting wolves and  bears in Yellowstone generated this comment: “Protect these animals, respect and leave them alone! Just read about them and watch the videos!”

The author’s son tree climbing. Photo © Matt Miller

For me, and many others, it’s not enough to watch a nature documentary. And never will be enough. It also denies our human evolutionary history: for much of it, we were inextricably part of, not separate from, the natural world. We still are. Building a tower does not change the fact that we are  part of this world, dependent on land, water, air and creatures for our survival.

Sampson argues in How To Raise A Wild Child that unstructured play in nature is essential for children. They need it for their physical and mental health, and their development. And the planet needs it, too. Roaming off the trail, flipping over rocks, causes kids to fall in love with nature. And that love makes conservationists.

The good news is that we can allow this unstructured, hands-on play without endangering species or trampling sensitive habitats.

There are still lots of natural places where kids can and should roam at will. Sampson advocates for wild playgrounds, with trees and brush rather than manicured lawns, and where kids are free to explore. There are many vacant lots, woodlots and parks that could easily allow free play. Conservation organizations could acquire lands specifically for kids, properties slated for development that instead could be open to the much lesser impacts of rock collecting and miniature dam building.

A group of local kids visit the world’s largest known Western larch tree just outside of The Nature Conservancy’s Great Western Checkerboards Project, Montana. Seeley Lake, Montana. Photo © Steven Gnam for The Nature Conservancy

And, as Emma Marris writes: “There are 640 million acres of public land in the United States. Surely there’s room somewhere for a few lousy forts.”

And, in case you haven’t been paying attention, those public land acres are under imminent threat from people who want to sell them. We surely need more kids (and adults) playing on them, and connecting to them, not fewer. If no one goes there, then no one will even notice when these lands come on the auction block. That would be a far greater loss than anything wrought by a group of kids flipping rocks in a stream.

Hiking. Photo © Matt Miller

My wife and I are taking this hands-on approach to nature with our own toddler son. As Sampson suggests, our toddler keeps a “nature box” filled with items collected on our outings: sticks and stones and pine cones and bits of lichen. He catches and releases praying mantises and moths. He builds little castles along the river.

A recent weekend national forest snowshoeing adventure quickly got derailed. All that unpacked snow off the trail was just too inviting. We built a snowman, gathering fallen pine limbs and cones to make arms and buttons. As we played, my son suddenly pointed at a tree, “Tiny squirrel!” he exclaimed.

Indeed, a pine squirrel scampered down the trunk and into the snow. As my son giggled, I could see the beginnings of a lifelong fascination, a fascination that leads to love. That love does not come from a video or from environmental education. It comes from being out there as a participating member of this beautiful, awesome, still wild world.

Adrian Austin swinging from vines in the Nags Head Woods Preserve. Photo © Ben Herndon for The Nature Conservancy

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  1. Naveen Chilakapati says:

    Love this article

  2. Caroline Ann Martin says:

    A fantastic article, for all of us who “follow the rules” as you describe, “Don’t leave what you bring in, leave what you take, stay on the trails, etc…”

  3. Laurel Dodge says:

    Years ago, when speaking with the director of a small nature center in New York state, I was shocked to hear her suggest that during the family nature walks I would be leading we should really try not to touch anything “…if we had to touch anything, pick up so much as a feather, we should make sure to put it back exactly in the same spot we found it.” Though I completed the programs I had agreed to, I crossed that nature center off any potential future employment list. Messing about in nature is how naturalists and scientists are grown. All you have to do is read the biographies or autobiographies of E. O. Wilson, David M. Carroll, Robert Michael Pyle, Bernd Heinrich, Beatrix Potter (mycology), etc. to see the direct link between the freedom they enjoyed in nature as children and their curiosity and scientific discoveries as adults.

  4. David Morrison says:

    Thank you for this article. In our work we like to head off of the main pathways. Off to the areas of real interest where kids can truly indulge their need to explore and imagine and where, as an adult, you can see the connections being made that create not only an interest but a love for the natural world. You cannot replicate that depth of feeling and stimulation in a classroom or by only watching animals on a screen.

  5. Barry Bruton says:

    Well said, Matt!

    As an avid scuba diver I’m trying to fit your philosophy into behavior in the wet side of the world. I’ve seen how many interactions in the oceans can leave pretty gruesome marks.
    Good judgement is the key of course. We have a tendency at times to love something to death.

  6. Julie Plarr says:

    Excellent article. Love it. I was raised this way, and so were my children. While they don’t have children of their own yet, I have encouraged them along the way to keep up the tradition and to encourage their own children someday to do the same.

  7. Dawn W Clay says:

    I’m Gramma… one of the best compliments I have received is… “no, Gramma.. I don’t to go buy my bow and arrows.. I like making them with you!” They love coming over so they can play outside.. get their hands muddy.. and make lots of stuff… they can all swim, snorkle, and paddle board… an Oregonian.

  8. Steve Plumb says:

    Play and learning go together. Appreciation for beauty and wonder at the complexities of nature are learned in many ways but most joyfully by immersion.
    Playing tag among alpine wildflowers would lead to destruction so I didn’t take my kids there until they could be amazed at the sight. Then playing tag didn’t come up as an option.
    Common sense rules are needed. But for childhood’s sake we need places where kids can make their own rules and just have fun.

    Thank You Matt, and keep fishing!

  9. Rodrigo Vidal Lazaro says:

    It all dependes on how many of us are going to do that. It`s called overpopulation.

    1. creekgirl says:

      Rodrigo has hit the nail on the head. Chances are, when you all were playing in nature as a kid, there was plenty more nature to play in. There was more undeveloped land, there were higher species populations. The reason land managers may treat nature as more precious is not because they are spoilsport prigs, but because they are probably way more aware than you of species population declines. You want kids to be feel free in nature? Then have fewer kids, teach them to respect other living things and become an active advocate for land preservation.

    2. Heather Strong says:

      You act as though you could not recreate nature. What is the visual of “I am legend” or… the original “Planet of the apes”? What would happen if man were gone? If I don’t mow my backyard (which I didn’t do all last summer) it becomes a natural state again. Nature is not destroyed by children interacting with it. It’s destroyed by people organizing it. “Here are your trails..go only here”. “Here is your playground. We have created your structure, these are your boundaries”.
      Here’s the problem with that kind of organizing by people who are trying to “protect” nature. We’re destroying our children’s ability to problem solve on their own. We’re taking away the most effective way of our children developing Executive Functioning Skills. https://www.childrenandnature.org/
      If we don’t begin to realize the impact taking our children out of nature is having and is going to continue to have on our future then we will create what it is we fear happening. We create a society that doesn’t love nature and therefore is perfectly okay with replacing it with artificial intelligence and environments. Natural is best. It may not always be perfect…but left to it’s own devices…it evolves.
      Our helpful society, although often well intended, has historical destroyed many of the natural components of this planet.

    3. Ryan Miller says:

      Hiking through a forest off trail doesn’t kill off/cause a decline in species. A person walking through the forest is no different than a bear walking through (other than the fact we don’t usually poo in the woods!).

      The problem comes when people leave trash, or try to cut down/debark trees, or pollute natural creeks, or try to feed wildlife, etc. These actions DO cause a problem, and they are all associated with people who didn’t spend enough time with nature growing up, and have a lack of respect for it because of that. You want people to respect nature and be advocates for it? They need to spend *intimate* time in nature. That doesn’t mean walking down an asphalt trail looking at the pretty sights. It means making a deep connection to nature, feeling it is an integral part of your life.

      As a side note, ” You want kids to be feel free in nature? Then have fewer kids” is a pretty shitty thing to say.

    4. Jeannie Patton says:

      I just wrote a longer comment (below) about this. Thank you, Rodrigo, for speaking up on behalf of paths and wildlife that are under extreme stress due to people going off-trail. It breaks my heart to see and experience the degradation of Rocky Mountain National Park, up the road from where I was raised and still live, in my lifetime. Too many people trampling the tundra ….

  10. Sandy Zelasko says:

    I was always the “don’t stray from the path” type of girl growing up but now it is a whole different story and I find myself lost in nature all the time! Love your articles Matthew.