Treating Nature Like a Snooty Museum

Is eahdzddtst
there a “right” way for kids to play in nature? A letter I got:

Dear Free-Range Kids: At my son’s former pre-k, he and another boy were picking leaves off of an overgrown bush while adults were talking. The boys were quiet, engaged, and the bush seemed pretty hardy. When the teacher and the other boy’s dad realized what was going on, there was lots of Very Concerned Talk about respecting the bush, and keeping it nice for the other kids, and sort of a glance towards me like: Really? You watched this?

Whatever. It’s not like it was an orchid waiting to be sold at the forest, or a poison oak bush. And they weren’t decimating it.
Then again, here in LA there are some lovely canyon hikes close by, and they are frequently spoiled by taggers spray painting rocks and trees. No respect. And really a bummer to try to get into nature and all you see is the selfishness of others. Or is that the price of allowing exploration — like supporting free speech and hearing some undesirable things?  –  A nature loving mom in L.A.
Well, here’s what Orion Magazine has to say about kids and nature:

“For special places to work their magic on kids,” wrote lepidopterist Robert Michael Pyle, “they need to be able to do some clamber and damage. They need to be free to climb trees, muck about, catch things, and get wet—above all, to leave the trail.”

Lately, though, much of environmental education—the sort of education that’s meant to work a kind of magic on kids—has lost track of Pyle’s insight. As David Sobel puts it in “Look, Don’t Touch,” his feature in the July/August 2012 issue of Orion, environmental education has

become didactic and staid, restrictive and rule bound. A creeping focus on cognition has replaced the goal of exhilaration that once motivated educators to take children outside. Much of environmental education today has taken on a museum mentality, where nature is a composed exhibit on the other side of the glass. Children can look at it and study it, but they can’t do anything with it. The message is: Nature is fragile. Look, but don’t touch.

It’s an approach that may actually cut kids off from nature, Sobel argues—one that could create fearful and, well,boring associations with the outdoors.

No one wants to sound like a nature-trampling jerk. But I think it’s fine for kids to pick, pluck, move, squish, haul  and use the physical equivalent of their “outdoor voices” outdoors. If we want kids to have any true, deep feelings for nature, they can’t grow up thinking of it as the living room. It has to be the play room, the one where happy memories were made. That love, that connection, will serve the kids AND the environment far better in the long run.

Quit harassing that stump!

Quit harassing that stump!


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85 Responses to Treating Nature Like a Snooty Museum

  1. ChicagoDad June 30, 2015 at 8:33 am #

    Love it! Go play and have fun.

  2. Doug June 30, 2015 at 8:41 am #

    I first read “[H]ere’s what Onion magazine said . . . .” Especially when the word “lepidopterist” turned up. Luckily, I wasn’t in my safe space, and I was able to use my congnitive abilities to realize I had made a mistake.

    If I could let the kids play in the mud, and somehow keep the mud outside, I’d be ecstatic. Alas, playing in the mud means the mud comes inside. A small price to pay.

  3. pentamom June 30, 2015 at 9:09 am #

    I would only add the caveat that if you’re in a place where damaging the plant life is specifically forbidden, teach your kids to respect the rules. Some places have those rules for good reasons, some for silly ones, but in any case, it’s not your stuff and if the people in charge of the stuff don’t want you to do something to it, then don’t, and don’t encourage your kids to. Go somewhere else if you can’t stand the rules.

  4. E June 30, 2015 at 9:12 am #

    I don’t have a problem with the kids plucking the leaves off a bush, but I also don’t have a problem for the day care to make them stop. It’s their shrubs and their kids to manage.

    If he doesn’t care about his own shrubs (and I wouldn’t) then go for it.

    If you take your family to national/state parks/forests, they usually expect you to follow Leave No Trace principles. That way everyone gets to experience nature as it is, rather than finding a pile of plucked leaves or not being able to see a giant pinecone (or whatever) because someone collected it.

  5. Elin June 30, 2015 at 9:24 am #

    I don’t like mindless vandalism of trees and such and would tell my daughter off if she just pulled the leaves off a bush or tree as a game but if she would pick one and want to show me it is a different matter. There is simply no need to pull leaf after leaf from a bush without aim and I do think a bush has the right to exist to an extent at least, if it is not in the way it should be left alone. This being turned into a huge issue though with talks to parents and so on seems a little over the top.

  6. SOA June 30, 2015 at 9:29 am #

    There is a happy medium. My mom lives out in the country and my boys love visiting her out there. She has multiple flower beds she works really hard on, yes they are not allowed to mess with the flower beds. But if they want to dig in the mud elsewhere she is fine with that. No they can’t pull the leaves off her pretty flowering bush (dont know what its called), but yes they can go jump in the pile of dead leaves.

    Kids have to have limits outside too because some things they don’t need to be messing with. I got onto them for peeing in the flowers at the Botanical Garden but Mimi does not care if they go pee out in the yard at her house.

    Let’s not be obtuse, obviously there is a happy medium

  7. theresa hall June 30, 2015 at 9:57 am #

    they shouldn’t be touching plants because if they don’t know what it is it could be something like poison ivy.
    I have never seen poison ivy but I know it will give a rash which is defiantly on the not fun list. you should be 100% sure of plant before you mess with it

  8. Havva June 30, 2015 at 10:05 am #

    @theresa hall,
    You are joking right?

  9. Miriam June 30, 2015 at 10:07 am #

    The original story is fun a pre k, not out in the middle of nature. If a kid did that to my bush, I would discipline them for not respecting other’s property. Also, I have seen kids de-foliage a plant faster than a parent can say no. Yes, let kids play, but don’t let them destroy or damage indiscriminately.

  10. Warren June 30, 2015 at 10:09 am #

    Very simple. Kid is pulling leaves off a tree, plant or bush just for the sake of doing it. Go up and start plucking hairs from the kids head, and tell them “Just wanted to see what you find fun about this.”

  11. Tim June 30, 2015 at 10:10 am #

    Silly boys!
    Don’t they know that trees, plants and shrubs exist for property value only?
    The damage they could have done…….

  12. Warren June 30, 2015 at 10:12 am #

    theresa hall,

    Really? Just a little on the paranoid side when it comes to plant life, aren’t we?

  13. Emily Morris June 30, 2015 at 10:35 am #

    There’s hardly one right answer for all situations here and that’s what ought to be kept in mind. I spent years with the Boy Scouts and firmly believe in Leave No Trace. But a proper look at Leave NO Trace reveals never meaning “don’t touch ever!”

    And of course one doesn’t want to be grabbing poisonous plants willy-nilly. And of course one ought to respect the property of others.

    But.. in general, my view of nature is more of something we are a part of rather than something foreign and separate. Frankly, education and experience and respect are the best ways to go in teaching kids to deal with nature.

  14. Rina Lederman June 30, 2015 at 10:47 am #

    LOVE THE CAPTION. man its sooooo goooood.

  15. Corey June 30, 2015 at 11:43 am #

    Much like “curse” words, I have chosen to teach my son to think about the situation he is in, rather than make hard-and-fast rules. I don’t believe in “bad words” but my father-in-law does. So my instructions to my son are to think about how his language will make other people feel, not whether certain words are “bad” because some British royalty in the 1500’s didn’t like German slang.

    The same applies to nature. When we camp, we consider whether what we do to the campsite affects the people that come after us. When walking down the sidewalk, is it OK to pluck leaves off any plant you walk past? There’s no rule here, it depends on many factors. Is it an ornamental plant? Is it on someone’s front lawn or one of many trees in a public forest? Will it detract from other’s enjoyment when they follow us down this path, or are we so far off the beaten trail it’ll grow back before another human sees it?

    Are we picking one leaf to look at and show mom or are we stripping the brush mindlessly for something to do?

    I don’t want my kids to have iron-clad rules, that’s for school administrators and CPS. I want them to THINK about what they’re doing and how it affects others.

  16. Diana Green June 30, 2015 at 12:26 pm #

    If you haven’t read Jay Griffiths’ new book, A COUNTRY CALLED CHILDHOOD, now is the time!
    Subtitled CHILDREN AND THE EXUBERANT WORLD, it was formerly published in the UK as KITH, which is now the name of the first chapter. JG has a world view and a multidisciplinary approach, yet she is a fine, engaging, and entertaining writer. She will make you want to let your kids go Free Range as surely as Lenore has. And to save the wild places in the neighborhood and on the planet at the same time.

  17. Jeni June 30, 2015 at 12:44 pm #

    So as a science teacher, when I read the mom’s letter I see potential cause and effect between letting kids pluck leaves “just because” and painting rocks “just because”. I teach the kids to enjoy the leaves alive on the plant and then when they’ve fallen. Because if 750 kids pluck leaves “just because”, we won’t have foliage.

    The same goes for creatures. Watch the snail, follow the snail closely, but do not squish the snail “just because”.

    That said, I wholeheartedly agree in getting muddy and free exploration.

    I don’t think the idea of respecting the living and experiencing nature are mutually exclusive.

  18. MichelleB June 30, 2015 at 12:58 pm #

    “There is simply no need to pull leaf after leaf from a bush without aim and I do think a bush has the right to exist to an extent at least, if it is not in the way it should be left alone.”

    When I was a kid, we had this elaborate game in my Grandma’s back yard. It was an imaginary city, with shops and currency. We used the red and green leaves from the flotinia as dollars and picked a LOT of them, with Grandma’s knowledge and permission, every time we played. The rule was that we could have as many of those leaves as we wanted but were to leave the rest of the bushes alone.

    Our place in the country is big and overgrown, complete with some poison oak which my kids haven’t managed to get into in the ten years they’ve been roaming. I don’t think they can identify it, but they know where it is. As long as they don’t deliberately damage my trees, or pick flowers that the bees are using, or dig holes in places I’m likely to step in them (they caught me in one of those last summer), they’ve pretty much got free range out there. We did have a bit of a learning curve to master when my preschoolers visited friends and family with intentional landscaping.

    Some parks, usually the older ones in our experience, have big trees that can survive some climbing. But lots of the newer ones have lawn and an occasional decorative bush. I wouldn’t let my kids mess with those, or dig holes in the wood chips, or anything else that’s going to have lasting impact. (Those hundreds of daisies dotting the grass are TOTALLY fair game!)

  19. James Pollock June 30, 2015 at 1:01 pm #

    Somewhere between pulling one or two leaves off a bush, and defoliating the entire thing, is a line at which the children should be re-directed to something else. Here we have some parents who disagree where that line is. My own opinion tends closer to “leave nothing but footprints, take nothing but memories” for field trips, and “try not to leave it looking ugly” for yards.

  20. Buffy June 30, 2015 at 1:08 pm #

    Well, worst mother on earth here. When my kids were little we took plenty of walks in the woods, and instead of taking pictures I let them pick up pine cones to bring home and display in a bowl, colored leaves that had fallen off trees, and if they found a long stick to use as a “walking stick” they loved it and used it throughout the walk. Yes, sometimes those sticks would come home too.

    So far, they have not grown up to be Nature-Destroying Axe Murderers despite this questionable parenting.

    Go ahead James Pollock, have at me.

  21. Anna June 30, 2015 at 1:11 pm #

    I’m a pretty avid amateur naturalist, and I think if you teach your kids about nature this problem will solve itself. Myself I decide whether it’s okay to pick something based on how common it is, how lushly it’s growing in this spot, whether it’s an invasive plant, etc. There’s no reason kids can’t learn those same considerations too, especially as they get older. If it’s an obvious weed in a garden or manicured park area, or a common plant in a vacant lot, why not let a kid have fun at its expense? On the other hand, I don’t think it’s right to let kids damage other people’s ornamentals, since they are private property.

    And Theresa Hall, what you do about that is teach your kids to recognize poison ivy and any other similarly noxious plant that grows in your area. Usually there aren’t that many to learn. As far as other poisonous plants, kids should know not to eat any unknown plant, but contrary to popular opinion (I’m talking to you, anxious California parents who have pulled out all your oleanders in a panic because of news stories), very few plants are toxic enough to hurt anybody through casual contact, like picking and later somehow licking your hand. Most poisonous plants have to be distilled in some way to actually be deadly.

  22. James Pollock June 30, 2015 at 1:11 pm #

    When I was young, we had something called “outdoor school”. Sixth-graders would be whisked off to a summer-camp in either spring or fall, and spent a week learning natural systems, ecology, the interrelatedness of things. (Obviously, there’s a big difference between pre-K and sixth-grade.) The mostly-suburban kids, walking around in the woods, learned why it makes a difference if you cut down on the trees on the hillside… how the lower levels of the forest depend on the canopy, how the animals depend on the plants, how erosion can affect everything. The theory being that seeing, directly, how everything interrelates made for better understanding of it.

    It was a victim of budget cuts in the 90’s.

  23. SOA June 30, 2015 at 1:51 pm #

    The more kids are out in nature the more they learn how to behave in nature and be respectful as they experience it. Let them plant plants themselves and then they will respect plants for example.
    We pretty much go with its okay to pick up sticks or leaves already on the ground but otherwise leave them alone.
    Same with animals. You can take home an empty old bird nest but never take one being used. Things like that.

    Kids naturally are drawn to nature and the more they are in it, the better they understand and respect it. Those kids were probably pulling the leaves off the bush because they never went on a true nature hike deep up in the woods.

  24. Jen June 30, 2015 at 2:00 pm #

    I have found poison ivy to be indiscriminate – whether it attacks me in self defense or the rash is collateral damage from one of the pets enjoying the outdoors, I have always survived. So has my daughter. Unless you are highly allergic like my nephew (who often doesn’t even know he came in contact with the plant) and need steroids to clear up the rash, most survive. Otherwise, washing with Fels Naptha (laundry) soap and using calamine lotion tol dry it up usually works. An unpleasant but (for most) not deadly natural consequence that will soon teach you to be careful – though again, being cautious is far from foolproof.

    Now, I would agree with you if you had said “eating plants” — my daughter was 7 before she was allowed to eat anything she found outside (blueberries, raspberries, blackberries, wild strawberries, wintergreen leaves) without checking. However, now, I am quite confident in her ability to identify items from the approved and tested list.

    Swinging on birch trees and climbing trees is also a great tradition that can turn un-fun sometimes but never experimenting or testing yourself or investigating things just because you are curious is decidedly un-fun too and doesn’t make you particularly interesting at dinner parties.

  25. James Pollock June 30, 2015 at 2:00 pm #

    “And Theresa Hall, what you do about that is teach your kids to recognize poison ivy and any other similarly noxious plant that grows in your area.”

    But if you aren’t IN your area, mom and dad may not know the dangerous plants any better that the child does. I live in Oregon. During a trip to Arizona, my daughter learned the hard way that in Arizona, plants bite. She was still at a curious age, and had to be warned about the specific danger of scorpions when you go poking into holes or unpiling piles of rocks.

  26. James Pollock June 30, 2015 at 2:06 pm #

    “An unpleasant but (for most) not deadly natural consequence that will soon teach you to be careful – though again, being cautious is far from foolproof.”

    So what’s the problem with teaching your kids to be careful, instead of letting an experience with poison ivy or stinging nettles teaching them to be careful? I mean, the hot stove teaches lessons, too…

  27. James Pollock June 30, 2015 at 2:07 pm #

    “Go ahead James Pollock, have at me.”
    For what, exactly?

  28. Christina June 30, 2015 at 2:15 pm #

    I don’t mind my kids plucking a few leaves, but if I don’t pay attention, they will DESTROY an entire plant for no reason. That works me to no end. Explore, but respect the right of other living things to continue that life.

  29. Anna June 30, 2015 at 2:16 pm #

    “During a trip to Arizona, my daughter learned the hard way that in Arizona, plants bite. She was still at a curious age, and had to be warned about the specific danger of scorpions when you go poking into holes or unpiling piles of rocks.” Good point – in the southwest, you don’t really want to be walking into underbrush at all, what with prickly things and rattlers snakes and various arachnids. But I assumed from her mention of poison ivy that Theresa must be in the east, where nature tends to be much more benign.

  30. Jen June 30, 2015 at 2:23 pm #

    @james Pollack “So what’s the problem with teaching your kids to be careful, instead of letting an experience with poison ivy or stinging nettles teaching them to be careful? I mean, the hot stove teaches lessons, too”

    I am not advocating not teaching children to be careful. The vexing and persistent poison ivy on our property has been pointed out repeatedly. But, it doesn’t always look the same. And, Theresa seems to be advocating not letting your child touch any plant they are unfamiliar with — I was simply pointing out that as parents, we can’t foresee every circumstance and while some consequences may be unpleasant, most are not fatal–so have at it, explore.

    And, having lived in Arizona, I would definitely be vigilant about teaching my children about the hazards. Unlike porcupine quills, some cacti will “throw” their quills at you, you should be able to identify black widow and brown recluse spiders and rattlesnakes, etc. and know where they tend to hang out as well as what to do if you are bitten. It’s about assessing risk and preparing children to know what to do should something go wrong.

    What I am saying is that I have taught my child what is best avoided in our area. I am not going to let her think that everything out there can be dangerous or fatal and she must check with me first before touching. And, I know that if she comes in contact with poison ivy, it will not be fun but it will not likely kill her.

    As I write this, I have a vexing poison ivy rash on my arms. . .it was encroaching in my garden and rather than spray it with poison, I chose to don gloves and pull those pesky vines up–knowing full well that I would probably get a rash that would last about a week. Life is about calculated risks – teach your kids to think critically and make good choices, arm them with information. Don’t let them think that they cannot make choices and that it is better to be afraid of everything.

  31. Paul June 30, 2015 at 2:36 pm #

    I guess this is one of the reasons I live in a far less populated part of the country. Go forth into the mountains Youth of America, you can’t pluck enough leaves to seriously impact the plant population around here! Certainly there are different rules for public parks and private gardens than public lands encompassing thousands of acres. It’s all about rational thought and reasonable consideration. One would hope, most adults have at least minimal critical thinking skills and can figure out what’s reasonable. Unfortunately, we see evidence to the contrary on an almost daily basis. If you travel with your kids around the national forests of Montana, let them explore to their heart’s desire. Teach them to respect nature and they will be able to make pretty good decisions on their own about what’s okay and what’s not.

  32. James Pollock June 30, 2015 at 2:38 pm #

    “having lived in Arizona, I would definitely be vigilant about teaching my children about the hazards.”

    I wasn’t pointing out that Arizona is particularly hazardous. The problem is that the hazards there are different and unfamiliar than the ones she (and I) know. I didn’t have to teach her to be wary of spiders, or snakes, because we have the same hazards at home. We don’t, however, have scorpions. She didn’t get spiked by a cactus… they come with their own “do not touch” signs… but a green plant that looked like a 3-foot tall blade of grass. Back home, such a plant would be expected to be pliant and, if you backed into it, would give way. In Arizona, the plant stands its ground and stabs you when you walk into it. Also, we were only in Arizona for four days, and it rained all four days. We were in the sort of Arizona community that has 5 golf courses, 50 cardiology clinics, and one grade-school playground.

  33. Havva June 30, 2015 at 2:38 pm #

    This and especially reactions talking about kids as likely destroyers, defoliaters, and indiscriminate forces controlled only by harsh hands-off edicts has me wanting to write a love song… or a whole book on my 4 year old’s love of nature.

    She is our defender of the wildflowers, rescuer of earthworms.

    I didn’t set out to make her a nature lover. I just set out to respect her natural state, her desires, her curiosity, her passion. I could see that like any kid she wanted to pick flowers and pull leaves. I set her loose among hardy plants, encouraged her to have at weeds, gave her hours to go to town on our yard. I even plucked specimens from common healthy plants for her to enjoy on our walks.

    She showed me shredded bits of this and that. And I told her what I knew about the things she was eagerly lifting to my face. We talked about leaves, veins, sap, flowers, petals, pollen, stamens, berries, seeds, bees, ants, worms, growth, death, decay, mushrooms, and more. She hasn’t decimated anything, though I have encouraged her to try on a variety of weeds.

    One day she found a flower, an exciting new flower, it was love. She wanted to pick it and I said “Don’t. I know you love it, I know you want it. And that is why you should leave it be. Let it make seeds. Next year there will be more flowers.” Though she was little, she understood at once. She did not complain. She defended that flower, “daddy look, daddy don’t mow,” she searched carefully for more flowers seeking to spring up.

    Now there are wildflowers, quite a variety. She alerts us when new ones arrive.

    At 4 she understands about the cycle of plant life, and the function of every part. She understands how wind and insects help with propagation. She understands her relationship to the plants. She feeds herself and her pet from the tangles of our yard. Yes there are poisons plants about. No it is not a problem. She is a careful student, and harvester, she knows more plants than I knew at twice her age. She knows common and rare, knows them friend, foe, and stranger without fail.

    The strangers she seeks to know. When she learns of a new animal or plant she wants to know what it ‘does’ and will settle for nothing less than to know its place in the ecosystem. What it consumes, what it creates, it’s health, how to treat it well, and how to interact safely.

    Her favorite animal of all she finds quite icky. But she loves the earthworms best because they make dirt from dead plant mater. After the rains she gets them off the sidewalk into the dirt or the compost pile.

    Given her love and respect for plants, I have never had trouble with her in botanical gardens. We don’t strap her in a stroller or find ourselves repeating “don’t touch.” We just say “this is a home for special, rare plants.” She revels in seeing them, she asks lots of questions, she scolds others for trying to touch.

    She still shreds weeds.

    Had I feared her as a destroyer, would she defend the wildflowers?
    Destroyer and defender, she is one and the same, a child who loves nature with all her heart.

  34. James Pollock June 30, 2015 at 2:48 pm #

    I think it’s about teaching children not to be wasteful.
    (baby deer are far more harmful to plants than are baby people, but they’re HUNGRY.)

  35. Havva June 30, 2015 at 2:51 pm #

    “She didn’t get spiked by a cactus… they come with their own “do not touch” signs… but a green plant that looked like a 3-foot tall blade of grass.”

    Sorry… that has me laughing and missing home. I grew up with loads of not pliant plants. I wouldn’t characterize them as “plants bite”.

    It will be interesting to see how my daughter views it. But I don’t think that changes my plan to pluck a few scrub oak leaves and encourage her to gently feel the spines. I though it would be an exciting example of very different types of plants. The plants I grew up with. I suppose it is also a good warning that not everything that is green is soft in the south west.

  36. Anna June 30, 2015 at 2:56 pm #

    James Pollock: for that very reason, what you teach your aspiring young naturalist is not “don’t touch anything” but “approach an unfamiliar ecosystem with caution.”

    “A green plant that looked like a 3-foot tall blade of grass” – sounds like a yucca. Now you know why their other name is “Spanish bayonets.”

  37. Anna June 30, 2015 at 3:02 pm #

    Havva: Good for you! I love your description of how your daughter learned. The fact is, touching is basically necessary to develop familiarity and love. “Don’t touch!” may save a bush here and now, but it’s never going to produce an ardent nature-lover and conservationist in the long run.

  38. fred schueler June 30, 2015 at 3:07 pm #

    real museum work is collecting and identifying, not gawking at exhibits – the exhibits are byproducts of museum work, properly intended to get folks hooked on the hands-on business of knowing what’s going on – just overheard at a museum event:: “I said ‘ugh’ because they’re hard to identify, not because they’re not nice to look at.”

  39. James Pollock June 30, 2015 at 3:07 pm #

    “I grew up with loads of not pliant plants. I wouldn’t characterize them as ‘plants bite’. ”

    She was bent over to pick up something on the ground, and sustained a substantial puncture wound. The plant bit her.

    The point being that the perceptions she had were formed by the experiences she had in the Pacific Northwest, and, specifically, the green part of it. Plants that look similar have very different properties. We have wildlife hazards (bears and mountain lions still occasionally encroach residential neighborhoods) We have household odiferous ants rather than fire ants.

    On the other hand, the City of Portland has, within its borders, Forest Park.

  40. Steve June 30, 2015 at 3:07 pm #

    Lots of excellent and reasonable advice left here by commenters. I obviously agree with most of what’s been said.

    The devil is always in the details.

    Situations can be so different, and I’m not fond of rules that try to make everything “seem” the same. But public properties and institutions never seem to want the public to use their best judgement. They just want to dictate.

    Interestingly, I have read a number of documents pointing to the fact that “public property” is the hardest to maintain because “The Public” feels no personal responsibility for it’s maintenance. Private property, on the other hand, receives far more care and attention because it’s yours. You own it.

    I doubt if anyone wants “all” the kids in their neighborhood to stop their house and pulled ALL the leaves off their two most prized shrubs beside the front steps. But one kid taking a few leaves isn’t going to hurt the bush.

    That being said, leaves do grow back. And that’s a lesson you could also teach your child.

    As a person who loves gardening, I’m often pruning and pulling leaves off shrubs and plants either to encourage a certain kind of new growth or “just to see what will happen.”

    I was just reading about the care and maintenance of privet hedges, and the author suggested pruning the hedge at least 4 times during the summer. Well, that is not only lopping off a LOT of leaves, it’s also taking tiny branches, too.

    So, I could imagine a person chastising a child for removing leaves from a bush in a public park while a man is pruning bushes a few feet away. And that’s where details make these situations more difficult.

    I remember being in Yosemite Park one day when a crew of so-called caretakers were BURNING weeds, grass, and small shrubs, and allowing the fire to burn up the sides of some of the trees. That’s right, the bark on the trees was actually on fire! I commented to my wife, “if we did that, we would probably be fined or carted off to jail, but since they are The Caretakers, it’s apparently just fine to do something I wouldn’t do on my own property.

    Again, each situation has it’s own details and reasons for doing one thing rather than another. Plus, people usually don’t agree, no matter what.

  41. JulieC June 30, 2015 at 3:17 pm #

    On one of our trips to Death Valley, we visited the Devil’s Golf Course (a giant salt crust). One of my kids took a little, two inch piece of the salt crust. [The salt continually oozes up out of the ground and hardens in the sun.]

    When we got back home, I was talking to my son’s teacher, who it turns out had visited Death Valley a day before us. I mentioned how excited he was to have that little piece of the salt crust, and I got a condescending smile and the comment, “oh, all I ever take from national parks is photographs.”

  42. James Pollock June 30, 2015 at 3:23 pm #

    “James Pollock: for that very reason, what you teach your aspiring young naturalist is not “don’t touch anything” but “approach an unfamiliar ecosystem with caution.”

    “Don’t touch anything” is a reasonable first stage, particularly if the parent is unfamiliar with the hazards.

    One way to find out what is is safe to touch and what is not safe to touch is to touch everything. This gives you “experience”. Experience is what you get when you didn’t get what you wanted. So, lots of stuff is perfectly fine to touch, and a few things are not. It only takes a few experiences with poison ivy or stinging nettles (or, apparently, “Spanish bayonets”) to learn that They Are Not To Be Touched. When you can learn from experience, we call that “intelligence”.
    Another way to find out what is safe to touch and what is not safe to touch is to watch other people. When someone else gets hold of a stinging nettle, one learns that They Are Not To Be Touched, without the experience. When you can learn from other people’s experience, we call that “wisdom”.

    “Don’t Touch”, as a universal rule, is unworkable and non-productive.
    “Don’t Touch”, as the starting point for “until you know it’s safe” is non-objectionable (to me, anyway, YMMV)

    This is a case that’s a little beyond that, as it’s one thing to decide that, for my child, the rule should be “don’t touch”, and another to decide that everyone else’s rule for their children must be “don’t touch”, and Very Concerned Talk results when it isn’t.
    “Don’t Touch” may be an appropriate rule for some subsets. Don’t touch an animal that appears sick. Don’t touch an animal on a leash (without asking) Don’t touch the neighbor’s flower garden. It’s possible that “don’t touch” is a rule for field trips.

  43. Anna June 30, 2015 at 3:35 pm #

    James Polluck: Maybe so. But actually, “don’t touch” probably wouldn’t have prevented your daughter from getting “bitten” by a yucca. One of the trickiest things about them is that the oldest, dead leaves – the ones that typically stab you – lie almost flat against the ground, below the main visible part of the plant, where other grasses and plants can hide them. And they penetrate socks easily, sometimes shoes too. So you actually have to give them a wide berth to avoid them, not just refrain from touching them (good hiking boots help too). As in many cases, knowledge is the key to staying safe, and I question whether generalized fear is a good starting point for gaining that knowledge. (Also, when you get right down to it, I don’t think a yucca ever killed anyone. I’d be more worried about the rattlers that might lurk in the same undergrowth and would teach a child never to walk where you can’t see your feet, period, at least in the southwest.)

    As for the problem of parents learning enough to teach, an excellent resource (if you’re interested) is Anna Botsford Comstock’s “A Handbook of Nature Study” – although it’s more designed for the east than the northwest.

  44. J- June 30, 2015 at 3:38 pm #

    Not to get too political but this attitude, I believe, stems from the same environmentalism that pushes the “everything man does to nature is destructive” line.

    Nature is more than robust, it is downright hostile. Put most Americans in true nature for a few days and they will die and nature will dispose of their bodies. Just watch an episode or two of Survivor Man or Naked and Afraid. There is more forest today than there was 100 years ago, same with deer, wild turkey, and most of the major game species of North America.

    Spray painting is pure destruction. There is nothing to be learned by doing it. But the “take only photographs, leave only footprints” is foolish. The best nature hike I ever went on was with a real outdoor enthusiast and earth science teacher, we ended up soaking wet and muddy to the eyes, having slogged our way though the Florida Everglades. No path, no manicured trail, just hip deep in boot sucking mud.

  45. SOA June 30, 2015 at 3:40 pm #

    Typically you aren’t supposed to remove things from national parks so the teacher was probably right.
    If that is a set rule you see posted you need to follow it. You can enjoy a national park and still follow the rules.
    When I took my kids to Mammoth Cave we followed the rule to not touch the cave walls and formations if you can avoid it. Because if enough people touch them it destroys them. That does not mean they were not still experiencing the cave and the natural beauty.

  46. Angela June 30, 2015 at 3:41 pm #

    Warren, you made me laugh.

    With plants that are abundant – grass, weeds, bushes in some areas – I generally allow picking/exploration to some extent. When my children and a friend decided to make willow wreaths out of the branches from the tree in my yard, I found a few branches that had fallen in a storm and directed them to it. However, when I noted all of the leaves from a certain height (as high as one particular child could reach) to the ground were stripped from that same willow, I was livid. I made a very similar comment about pulling hair out. Seems to have worked; the kids, while they will still pull a leaf/branch or two, are careful to make sure the plant remains healthy and beautiful. Having a garden and trees/bushes that they have planted themselves helps.

  47. BL June 30, 2015 at 3:59 pm #

    “Experience is what you get when you didn’t get what you wanted”

    I can’t remember where I first read this, but:

    Good judgment comes from experience. Experience comes from bad judgment.

  48. JulieC June 30, 2015 at 4:07 pm #

    Yes, SOA, I’m so glad you weren’t around to turn my 8 year old in to the park police after we got back to the hotel and he showed me his treasure. Or maybe he would have just gotton one of your sanctimonious lectures. Whatever.

  49. James Pollock June 30, 2015 at 4:10 pm #

    “Maybe so. But actually, “don’t touch” probably wouldn’t have prevented your daughter from getting “bitten” by a yucca.”
    It definitely wouldn’t, even had that been my policy, which it is not. She got a puncture wound/cut on the bottom, not on the hand.

    “you actually have to give them a wide berth to avoid them,”
    A lesson learned.

    “knowledge is the key to staying safe”
    Well, “safe” is a relative word, and doesn’t exist in absolute form. We didn’t get caught in a flash-flood, mostly because there wasn’t one, but there had been, there were signs on the draws that you would think would be helpful (do not proceed if sign is under water), but apparently the Sheriff’s Patrol has to pull a couple tourists out of a flooded draw every year. I got the warning about scorpions before the first time my daughter went outside. Had we been sufficiently observant, we might have noticed locals avoiding plants and done likewise, I prefer to assume we did not do this because our visit was so short rather than because we are inobservant.

    “I question whether generalized fear is a good starting point for gaining that knowledge.”
    You’re confusing respect and caution for fear.

    “I don’t think a yucca ever killed anyone.”
    I don’t think getting a finger caught in a car door ever killed anyone, but I still made sure my daughter’s hands were clear of the door before closing it. Yes, I could have let her discover for herself why she should keep her hands clear, but I preferred to give her benefit of my experience.

    I had shingles. It’s a miserable experience, one I wouldn’t wish on anyone. So I try to give other people the benefit of my experience, and suggest seeking out professional advice on how to avoid it.
    “it will kill you” is the not the bar I set for things that might best be avoided.

    “I’d be more worried about the rattlers that might lurk in the same undergrowth and would teach a child never to walk where you can’t see your feet, period, at least in the southwest.)”
    It was in a parking lot. There’s a cave complex about an hour’s drive east of Tucson, which was developed into a tourist attraction by the WPA. We were waiting to take the tour.

  50. James Pollock June 30, 2015 at 4:16 pm #

    “Yes, SOA, I’m so glad you weren’t around to turn my 8 year old in to the park police after we got back to the hotel and he showed me his treasure. Or maybe he would have just gotton one of your sanctimonious lectures. Whatever.”

    There’s a bit in one of the Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy books about an idyllic planet that draws incredible numbers of tourists. In fact, the number of tourists was so high, each of them leaving with a pebble or a handful of sand from the perfect beaches, that they instituted a new policy… when you arrive, you get weighed. If you weigh more when you try to leave, the difference in weight is surgically extracted.

    Douglas Adams tells it funnier.

  51. E June 30, 2015 at 4:22 pm #

    @Julie — the National Parks do make a point to educate their visitors on leaving things as they are (take only photos, leave only footprints). I learned that when I was pretty little.

    So while your kid didn’t know that, the person who mentioned it was correct — and apparently educating you as well.

    We were in 2 big Nat’l Parks last week and we were even advised that if we dropped something from our lunch/snack on the ground during a hike, we must pick it up and remove it. If bears adjust to people leaving lovely morsels behind, they’ll start to seek out humans and not avoid them. “A fed bear is a dead bear”.

    I guess I can’t vouch for her “condescending”, but she was 100% correct and doing her educator bit.

    I didn’t think SOA was doing anything but clarifying who was correct.

  52. E June 30, 2015 at 4:31 pm #

    @Buffy — there’s a difference between touching things and plucking leaves off a plant. There’s a difference between plucking leaves off a plant in your yard and plucking leaves off a plant at a school.

    I’m sure we ALL have touched nature. I imagine ALL of our children have touched nature, plucked leaves off of bushes/trees, etc.

    I also think that when a teacher (or anyone) says “please stop pulling those leaves off”, it’s perfectly fine to expect your kids to say “okay” and then stop doing it. And just moving on with your day.

  53. Havva June 30, 2015 at 4:34 pm #

    “It only takes a few experiences with poison ivy or stinging nettles (or, apparently, “Spanish bayonets”) to learn that They Are Not To Be Touched.”

    James, I looked them up. I’ve touched “Spanish bayonets.” I wouldn’t be in the least afraid to do it again. Or let my daughter give it a cautious try.

    I was instructed on many dangers of my local environment growing up, but that wasn’t one. Extensive experience with scrub oaks and numerous other stiff plants was enough to know that edges can be unpleasant. So I knew how to check stiffness of plants and sharpness of edges. I can say from experience that the broad flat sides are perfectly safe. (I even touched cacti as a young kid).

  54. JulieC June 30, 2015 at 4:34 pm #

    E: Read my original comment. I did not say I was unaware of that rule. Only that the teacher was rather disapproving.

    In fact, I am quite aware of it. Perhaps I should have stripped searched my son to make sure he had not taken anything. Oh well, he’s a grown up now and has managed to commit no further crimes. And my son is also an Eagle Scout. Who knew that a common criminal at 8 years old could end up earning his Eagle.

  55. Buffy June 30, 2015 at 4:43 pm #

    @E, that isn’t even close to what I said. I let my kids pick up and take home pine cones, leaves off the ground, and sticks; the exact opposite of the mantra “take nothing but photos”.

    It always seemed like we left behind plenty of those same items for other people to enjoy.

  56. Greg June 30, 2015 at 4:58 pm #

    I haven’t read all the article, nor all the comments. I just wanted to check if anyone pointed out that the Onion publication is a satirical publication and its content aren’t to be taken seriously. It uses the absurd to point out idiocy.

  57. theresa hall June 30, 2015 at 5:07 pm #

    maybe they would learn the hard way about plant that shouldn’t be touched but are you going let touch hot stoves and maybe get burned just to learn don’t do that? we are the grownups. we know more than they do so it our job to teach what is bad and what is good. we have to teach them what they shouldn’t do so they stay safe. and yes bad things can still happen but doesn’t mean we throw all safety rules out the door.

  58. Nadine June 30, 2015 at 5:08 pm #

    Today I was at the pool when the daugther of a friend asked me if i wanted to see her pet. In her sweaty fist she had a completly squashed up earwig. No respect for nature, not scared of it either.

  59. Nadine June 30, 2015 at 5:16 pm #

    Lol Greg, and the part tgat you did read you misread. It’s Orion magazine. Not The Onion. Even when it sometimes becomes confusing what is a joke or not. This isnt one of them.

  60. Debby Lake June 30, 2015 at 5:22 pm #

    As Girl Scouts, my fellow campers and I wreaked havoc (such a great cliche): we cut and/or gathered sticks/wood for fires, cooking sticks and furniture, and we made decorative stuff with natural materials.

    At the same time, we learned rules: manage the garbage (we cleaned and flattened tin cans and then buried them, made wilderness latrines, packed out other garbage); stay on trails; use existing campsites; don’t pick most flowers and only pick certain flowers if there are more than 10 of them visible (and then just pick one); admire mushrooms but leave them be; avoid poisonous plants and snakes, skunks, and stinging insects; admire other insects, mammals, birds, fish, and reptiles but don’t interfere with them or their habitat.

    I think we were less careful about reptiles, though–I recall catching skinks and having turtle races. And of course, we slapped as many mosquitoes as we could.

    Mayhem in nature needs a constructive purpose. When kids indulge in destructive activity, especially when such activity escalates when others join in, an adult needs to step up. In this case, I’m thinking it would be fun to have a conversation with the kids about how what leaves are and how they are part of the bush, and maybe speculate on how many leaves the bush needs to keep growing.

  61. lollipoplover June 30, 2015 at 6:17 pm #

    At my children’s preschool, they put masking tape around the preschooler’s wrist (sticky side out) and took them on nature walks where they were encouraged to pluck and scavenge for natural treasures to decorate the bracelet. They loved it. No trees or bushes died from chubby fingers plucking off a few leaves. Sheesh. Save the lecture for running in a parking lot or something that’s actually dangerous.

    They still love and respect nature. We garden. My blackberries have been decimated by hungry children. But it’s taught them so much about nature and life cycles and how pruning is healthy for plants. They understand the importance of bees and how we need them for food. Kids naturally want to experience the world around them through touch. Hands off everything teaches nothing.

  62. James Pollock June 30, 2015 at 6:47 pm #

    “James, I looked them up. I’ve touched “Spanish bayonets.” I wouldn’t be in the least afraid to do it again. Or let my daughter give it a cautious try.”
    If your first experience was similar to my daughter’s, you might be. If you know how, you can safely grab hold of stinging nettles, and some people aren’t allergic to poison ivy and can handle it without harm. I don’t suggest that the rules that apply to one 5-year-old girl should apply to everyone. At 5, the category Things That Are Not To Be Touched included all sorts of things that are perfectly safe if you know how to handle them, but which knowledge she did not yet possess.

    “I was instructed on many dangers of my local environment growing up, but that wasn’t one. Extensive experience with scrub oaks and numerous other stiff plants was enough to know that edges can be unpleasant.”
    The plants we had experience with were not such that turning your back and bending over were likely to result in blood. The plants we had experience with don’t bite (one exception being the Himalayan blackberry, which is common in the area, DOES bite.)

  63. Greg June 30, 2015 at 7:09 pm #

    Well, if that isn’t egg on my face. Many times I have to zoom pages in order to be able to read stories. It’s less of a problem here and I guess the story subject sounded as if it would be satirical, and so I read “Onion”.

  64. tdr June 30, 2015 at 7:09 pm #

    In Theresa hall’s defense…. Where I grew up there was no poison ivy and I would have thought this comment a little hyped. Where I live now, every 3rd bush is poison ivy and I basically say the same thing to every kid walking around here: “don’t touch the leaves unless you know what it is.”

    Ha ha a few years ago someone was in my yard and pointed to the wild grape leaves, and commented on how much poison ivy we had. I took some in my hand and rubbed it all over my infant to prove it wasn’t poison ivy. Considering how much grows here an alarming number of parents don’t know how to recognize it.

  65. James Pollock June 30, 2015 at 7:17 pm #

    “Considering how much grows here an alarming number of parents don’t know how to recognize it.”

    A substantial number of adults have no interaction with nature beyond their yards. And some don’t have yards.

  66. Barry Lederman June 30, 2015 at 9:04 pm #

    @Corey June 30, 2015 at 11:43 am

    Corey, I love your comment. It is such good common sense. The most uncommon thing in the world is common sense. Well done.

  67. Dave Colter June 30, 2015 at 9:12 pm #

    This is like the “self esteem” movement – a useful idea (don’t tell kids they’re stupid) but getting totally carried away with it to the point of ridiculousness.

    In parks, frequented and enjoyed by lots of the public, it’s indeed good etiquette to not pluck leaves off plants or pick flowers. In fact, it’s the law in many places (like all federal parks). However, that rule doesn’t apply to everywhere in the woods!

    There is an extreme line of thought amongst certain environmentalists that says we shouldn’t disturb natural environments at all. I don’t buy it. The stuff grows back. From the letter you quote, it sounds like this line of thought has crept into the classrooms. Teachers parroting extreme ideas without thinking them through.Scary.

  68. Reader June 30, 2015 at 9:17 pm #

    Once again worst-first thinking takes over. They see kids taking leaves off a plant that, for whatever reason, they don’t want the kids to do that to. But rather than keeping it limited to the (extremely small and minor) problem at hand by saying, “Hey, don’t take leaves off the plant, it’s Mrs Smith’s special plant/it makes a mess here/it’s not allowed at this daycare”, they conclude that the kids will grow up to be environmental vandals (!!!!) if they don’t immediately intervene with a massive lecture about conservation.

  69. Vanessa June 30, 2015 at 9:51 pm #

    I can’t get on board with letting kids destroy any living thing just for the fun of it. It’s fine to play with fallen leaves, sticks, dirt, water, pine cones, or to touch and examine the living leaves while they’re on the branches, but not to rip them off. No need to have a Very Serious Talk, just say “Hey, don’t pull off the green ones, the plant needs those” (which it does) and then move on.

  70. J June 30, 2015 at 10:06 pm #

    Back to the article… Child picks leaves off of private property, is asked to stop. There’s no affront to nature here, just adults teaching children to not be jerks and mess up other peoples’ stuff.

  71. SOA June 30, 2015 at 10:21 pm #

    Julie: don’t like the policies the National Parks service institute, take it up with them. Getting snarky with me does no good.

    That land belongs to all taxpayers and they get to make the rules so the parks are preserved for everyone.
    Now if you want him to be able to do whatever the hell he wants in nature, you can go buy some wooded land and have at it.

  72. Warren June 30, 2015 at 10:56 pm #


    It is not the parks Julie has a problem with. It is your personality and attitude, which I can completely relate to.

  73. Julie C June 30, 2015 at 11:19 pm #

    SOA – I never said a word against any policies. You are mistaken.

    It’s interesting to me how a few sentences about something my son did when he was a child (did you read the part where I mentioned he is now an adult?) gets turned into your opportunity to lecture me about something that you neither witnessed nor, it is now apparent, even read very clearly.

    If you are trying to convince me you are a humorless, sanctimonious scold you’re doing a fantastic job!

  74. E July 1, 2015 at 8:16 am #

    @Buffy — my point is that reason can be applied to situations like this. We walk our dog every day in some “woods” behind our neighbors home. Depending on where we are at any given moment, we’re on private property, public easements, or land owned by our private water system. It’s not a state park or national park or forest. The kids that play back there probably build dams in the creek, pluck flowers, whatever.

    But if you are on someone else’s property and they request you not [fill in the blank] then the reaction shouldn’t be anything other than “okay”. Is it really worth writing a letter to someone to say “they made my kid stop picking leaves off their shrub?”

    If you *are* in State/National Parks/Forests which subscribe to Leave No Trace, then you should be willing to do that.

    The dozen or so people that use “the woods” near our house each week, do not compare to public lands (I’m not talking about local parks that have landscape maintenance) that service thousands or millions.

  75. E July 1, 2015 at 8:28 am #

    One add’l comment. In the 70s I went to Yellowstone with my parents. My Dad and I walked the geyser basin and observed Morning Glory Pool. It was magnificent. It left such a mark on my memory, that over 30 years later when I took my own family, I made a point to walk out to Morning Glory again. It no longer was brilliant. According to the park, it is in part, due to people dropping things into the pool to “see what would happen”. They have blocked channels beneath the surface and lowered the temp of the pool which has changed the appearance a great deal.

    I realize that neighborhood “woods” and local parks are not iconic natural features that are visited by 1000s of people, but that’s the reason people feel strongly about LNT principles.

    Generally, I’ve come to dislike the “oh, these people don’t have the IDENTICAL viewpoint as I do, so they must be stifling children”. It is NOT a story if some kids were asked to stop plucking leaves off a playground bush. It’s not an indication of anything. I could picture many teachers I had in my life doing the same thing.

    @JulieC — I guess I just misinterpreted your original comment. I got the feeling you thought the teacher was incorrect to comment at all. I’d disagree with that. Particularly if she thought you weren’t aware. /shrug

  76. SOA July 1, 2015 at 10:18 am #

    No, Julie you are the one that is butthurt still years and years later that a teacher frowned at you because you violated the LNT rule most national parks have.

    So who has a bad attitude? I think I would have gotten over that long long ago.
    You are still butthurt you were apparently wrong and even now can’t admit it.

    Again, you can dislike my attitude all you want but when I am right, I am right. This time I am right. National Parks have those policies often for a good reason and you need to follow them. if you don’t, okay but then don’t get butthurt when someone calls you out on it.

  77. MichelleB July 1, 2015 at 11:32 am #

    Some of nature SHOULD be treated like a snooty museum, because of incidents like this one where grown men toppled rocks in Goblin Valley.

    In a forest that’s not part of a national park, I don’t see any problem with collecting pine cones or needles or using a piece of wood that’s already detached from the tree as a walking stick and moving it a bit farther down the trail. They’re already on the ground and, unlike the rock formations, or a desert plant that takes hundreds of years to grow, there will be more soon.

    On our property, we have a three hundred year old Douglas Fir. I believe that it has a right to live. (We’ll reevaluate that idea if it ever becomes sick and poses a serious threat to our house, but I expect that tree to outlive me.) I don’t feel the same way about the rest of the green stuff. I don’t think that really ugly decorative shrub that someone else planted deserves any kind of protection….but my husband and I are the ones who get to make that decision. My kids know, pretty much, which trees and bushes are fair game for making forts with/in.

    At our last house, we had a huge snowball bush in the front yard. For most of the year it was big and green and kind of ugly, until the big white clusters of flowers appeared. As soon as they were white and fluffy, passing kids would rattle the branches to make the petals fall like snow. (Kids walking to school without parents…but they were trashing my yard. I can’t get enthusiastic about that. And yes, I did tell them to stop when I caught them at it.) Someone with some authority over those kids needed to give them a talking to, but I’m guessing that if their parents cared, they wouldn’t have been messing with my bush in the first place.

  78. SJE July 1, 2015 at 12:22 pm #

    Close cousin to this are those who think nature is just the real life version of what they see on TV. Then they get eaten by lions.

  79. Diane July 1, 2015 at 9:43 pm #

    A few years ago we were at family camp with our church. After a review of the rules, a lady at our church set out some additional rules of her own, which for the children included not touching rocks. I get it, you don’t want kids throwing rocks. But not touching? And you’re there, being supervised by your parents? I made a point that whole weekend to pick up and examine every interesting rock I came across.

  80. Michael Barton July 1, 2015 at 10:03 pm #

    I wrote a post about the “don’t touch nature” disease spreading through nature education a few years back:

  81. Warren July 1, 2015 at 10:29 pm #

    Enjoying nature is about the senses. All of our senses.

    If the only way kids are going to be able to take in nature is by seeing it, they will miss out on almost all of it. They need to be able to touch, smell, hear and taste what nature has to offer.

  82. Samantha July 1, 2015 at 11:20 pm #

    Most natural areas have to be treated as museums today because there are just too many people utilizing the same space to let everyone do whatever they want. It is the price future generations will pay for their ancestor’s choice to excessively breed and overpopulate. If parents want to let their kids pick leaves or dig holes, then they should limit it to their own property.

  83. Anna Crowe Bates July 6, 2015 at 9:15 am #

    Let kids be kids! As a farmer, sometimes you have to get a little dirty to have fun 🙂

  84. Matt B July 11, 2015 at 8:43 pm #

    If everyone plucked the leaves off of bushes, they wouldn’t be so hardy. We try to teach our child to look and touch, but not pluck.

  85. Warren July 11, 2015 at 11:32 pm #

    Zero tolerance rules are never good. Kids have been plucking the leaves of trees since kids and trees existed. As long as they are not going overboard, there is no harm done.

    A few leaves here or there is not going to cause any harm.