August 28, 2014 | David F. Coppedge

Overcoming Fear of Nature with Joy

We wouldn’t have to re-wild kids if we didn’t un-wild them in the first place, a cognitive ethologist says about childhood fear of nature.

Fear of snakes, bugs, spiders, and all the creepy crawly stuff: that’s a learned reaction, Marc Bekoff says in a Live Science Op-Ed piece.  He’s concerned that we’re teaching kids wrong attitudes about the great outdoors.  The inbred fear of nature sometimes borders on the ridiculous; some kids are even afraid of fish and ladybugs.  More kids need a “rewilding” experience, a re-education into the wonders and benefits of nature.  It’s a worthwhile risk, he reassures parents, considering that kids consume 11 hours a day of electronic entertainment, according to an essay by Judy Molland, “Why Are Kids Afraid of Nature?”  Molland is concerned that more kids are expressing fear and disgust, like “Eew!  Get that bug away from me!” instead of learning to observe and appreciate plants and animals.  Part of it, she notes, stems from movies that exaggerate creature creepiness.

The conclusion to Molland’s essay is right on the mark: “Whatever it takes, let’s get rid of the fear. The dangers of staying home, sitting all day staring at a screen while munching on corn chips and drinking soda, are far greater than getting off that couch and stepping outside!

I’m reminded of the slogan of Play Wales, “Better a broken bone than a broken spirit.” Surely conservation psychologists and conservation social workers can help society along in learning how to overcome unwilding. Perhaps the process can begin with interactions with the companion animals with whom so many people share their homes, or with animals in backyards or local parks.

Bekoff and Molland are not unaware of the risks, but understand that everything has risks.  The risks in nature are preferable to the known risky outcomes of obesity and apathy.  Many fears can be dispelled by proper education, such as keeping safe distances from snakes, and knowing how to identify potentially harmful plants or animals.  “In an area where grizzly bears, or alligators, are the star attraction, then we should have a natural fear of them, and they of us, and we humans need to follow the proper rules for how to behave around such wildlife,” Molland notes.  That does not justify the “a fear of all nature” that park rangers see “flourishing, both in children and adults.”

Molland and Bekoff agree that parents and kids need to get outdoors more.  Let them get “down and dirty,” Bekoff says, “looking at the different animals who live there and also the trees, shrubs and flowers.”  It will produce a crop of mature adults who care more for the environment, who will teach their children to be good stewards as they hand the baton to the next generation.

Outdoor education

Adventure, Worship and Education (AWE) outdoors

Bekoff goes a little overboard with his rewilding idea, but these articles are good reminders – and make good plugs for ministries like Creation Safaris, led for 30 years now by David Coppedge, your humble Editor.  In over 350 outdoor expeditions I’ve led in mountains, deserts, caves, and all kinds of environments, including camping or backpacking far from civilization for a week or more, we have not had a serious accident or injury caused by plants or animals.  The only injuries we’ve seen have been from carelessness when hiking or exploring—and even those were not major.  Most dangerous animals will sense you and run away before you see them.  That happened recently, when one of our hikers spotted a mother bear and cubs running off into the forest; it was a treat, not a panic, to witness it.  You can learn to respect a snake, bear, or skunk at a safe distance without melting away in absurd cowardice.  Outdoor bravery is a good character quality for kids to develop.  Most of the time, in my experience, we have felt very safe and comfortable outdoors.  I’ve slept on the ground outdoors more times than a year has days, and here I am, eager to go out again.

Even in this fallen creation, there is abundant beauty and design to lift one’s spirits to the majesty of their Maker.  Try it!  What better place to learn about creation than when looking at it in God’s magnificent 3-D, surround-sound, audio-visual outdoor theater?   The glory of a starry night, the majesty of a redwood forest, or the vastness of the sea with crashing waves against rocks, or a flower-decorated meadow, cannot be appreciated just in photographs.  They need to be experienced in person.  I strongly encourage pastors and youth leaders to consider adding outdoor ministry activities to your calendar.  It will buttress your ministry with a great deal more A.W.E.—Adventure, Worship, and Education.


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