Nature: The Gateway Drug to Religion and Science
I’m about to tell her that the big bird’s name is Pandion haliaetus, but instead let the moment play out without interruption. I take the kayak about abruptly to help her keep the bird in view, and to prevent her from standing suddenly up in an effort to watch it disappear into the woods on the island. My daughter, six years old, is uncharacteristically quiet. As I look at her face, I can see the waves rolling in.
Questions are coming, and it’s no mystery as to why.
There’s the novelty that this lake, like every place is different depending on when you see it. A park you’ve only ever visited in the spring and summer is foreign in the dead of winter. Dawn and dusk are somewhat alike, but very different from broad daylight or a clear night. Weather changes and animals migrate or hibernate.
There are a hundred new things to notice and wonder about before you’ve taken ten steps.
All of this change and detail--- some subtle, some startling--- begs questions and speaks to a natural order. Engaging with nature primes young minds for curiosity and exploration. Spending even small amounts of time in nature helps restore people’s ability to pay attention. This even holds true for kids with attention-deficit/ hyperactivity disorder. Recent research has also shown that time in nature improves memory and decreases anxiety and depression.
Calm minds, an open library of memories, and deeply engaged senses are a breeding ground for questions.
Natural settings also encourage us to be present with the people around us. Less distracted and in a better mood, people open up. Constant change in the environment creates a shared experience and offers a never-ending stream of things to talk about. Conversation--- the kind that involves reflection--- becomes easier.
When we’re outside together, my kids and I learn about ecology and math, astronomy and agronomy. My kids invariably begin asking questions of the “what” and “why” sort about something that catches their attention, and I have no choice but to become the walking answer-machine. Some days the questions are a logical progression that begins with, “What kind of bird is that?” Then follows a series of inquiries about the diet of the pileated woodpecker, the lifecycle of insects and other arthropods under a tree’s bark, the habits of cavity nesters, the reasons native trees are so important for small birds that don’t even eat their seeds or fruit, and finally, what all of these things have to do with safe drinking water.
There are questions about why something exists, distinct from the questions of what it is and how it came to be.
They ask me about why people say or do hurtful things, and reveal their own fearless incredulity at injustice, the kind that only kids still possess. Sometimes there’s an opportunity to quote scripture and give them something that should be easy to remember about how to treat other people.
Once in a while, my kids’ interrogation is more like trying in vain to hold a lightly defended beach, surprised and hopelessly outnumbered and outgunned. I’m barraged alternately with questions about the properties of black holes (nuts, what did Stephen Hawking say about that?) and enigmas that have baffled and incited theologians for centuries (thank you, Martin Luther, for “mysteriously present”). This sometimes leads to those long and enormously important conversations about what I believe and about the limits of my understanding. These, I hope, are the seeds of instinctively avoiding being judgmental and recognizing that certainty is an emotion that can get you into trouble.
These are great moments as a father--- a big part of the major work of raising kids---, and they can start effortlessly with time spent in natural settings.
While there’s evidence that even small doses of nature--- less than an hour--- have measurable benefits for mental health and cognitive function, it’s no surprise that bigger doses have bigger benefits.
Longer time spent is also more conducive to kids arriving naturally upon big questions, and parents having more time to answer them. It’s worth marking out an entire morning on the calendar once in a while, or investing a long weekend in outside time.
It’s also really important to let kids be kids.
Too much structure in outdoor time works against nature’s cognitive and effective benefits, and denies kids the freedom to stumble upon questions.
An earlier version of this article appeared on The Good Men Project.
David Davis is a husband, father of two, and a conservationist in the Chesapeake Bay watershed. He has worked as a cartographer, and as a project manager, operations manager, and strategist for various applied science organizations. He writes about the value of nature, practicing Christianity, socially responsible organizations, and the STEM workforce. Opinions expressed are his own. Follow him on Twitter: @david_p_davis.
Photographer Bio of Title Photo:
Emma Stultz graduated with a Bachelor of Fine Arts from the University of Maryland in 2011. She is the art director for OutLook by the Bay and currently teaches elementary school art. Emma’s work as a freelance illustrator and graphic designer can be found online at lucyjeanpaper.com. Her work was featured in the Mended edition of Thryve Magazine.