Aired: Sept. 20, 2006 at 6:55 and 8:55 am; Morning Edition KPR
I recall taking the Snow Entomology Museum display of tropical insects out to children at the request of the City Park Department. The first group was at the edge of town and the kids were in jeans or overalls and some were barefoot. As soon as they spotted the six-inch long Panamanian grasshopper, the questions began: how come the back wings are so big, why do grasshoppers go click-click-click when they fly. The hour was packed with excitement and questions.
The second set of kids was different. We met in a school gym in a rich part of town...all zoysia grass yards. The youngsters, all politely seated on the benches, wore the latest fashion clothes and sat quietly as I set up the insect display. No matter. I was sure the excitement would catch on as soon as I introduced the Panamanian grasshopper, just a larger version of the grasshoppers they chase and go click-click-click when they fly.
Silence. I am reading absolutely no understanding on their faces.
“So, what does ‘grasshopper’ mean to you?” I ask, beginning with the child on the end.
“My mommy wears them,” comes a meek reply.
The second child tells me that it is a drink that mom and dad sometimes make.
I didn’t strike out completely. One youngster had been fishing with his dad when the night crawlers ran out and they caught some grasshoppers for bait.
Needless to say, this session was nowhere as exciting as the first.
Years later, author Richard Louv has detailed this phenomenon in his book”Last Child in the Woods: Saving Our Children from Nature-Deficit Disorder.” With a childhood in Independence, Missouri, Louv returns to suburban Overland Park, Kansas for one of the first interviews in his book. He relates how a mother orders her kids, who are complaining about being bored, to go out and spend two hours in the back fields. They begrudgingly go, to come back much later, excited at having discovered nature for the first time. Louv documents in his book the major shift in experiences between the 1946-to-64 generation who played outdoors, and the current generation who mostly do not.
While Louv focuses on the social consequences of isolation from nature, I am concerned with our source of future field biologists. While speaking at a regional meeting of scientists who study insects, I asked how many of us became excited and entered our field from:
Reading books? Watching television documentaries? Having a great teacher? None of us.
How many became entomologists from collecting in the field? All hands went up.
Where will our next generation of field biologists come from?
It is fashionable to warn of the “digital divide”–an inequity between those who have computers and those who do not, whom we assume will be left behind. What we have overlooked is that children who are immersed in computer and video games and television have left behind experiences that are vital to a healthy and creative life. In the “digital divide” it may be those with the digital toys who are left without.
I know why I look forward to working the State Fair booth each fall. As I hand out free spider booklets, many childrens’ eyes light up as they spot the pictures and excitedly tell their daddy: that’s the one they saw in the field behind the house.
The coasts and suburbs may have seen “the last child in the woods,” but here in Kansas, we have not reached the point of the “last child in the prairie.” Not yet.
John Richard Schrock trains biology teachers and lives in Emporia.