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Highly Commended in the International Category of the 2015 BBC Wildlife Blogger Awards

A Child's Right to Hands-On Nature

According to David Attenborough, all children have an affinity for nature. I agree with him. I think we are all born with the desire to understand our fellow creatures. Unless taught by adults to fear insects, or frogs, or lizards, children are likely to be trusting and to regard these animals without judgement. Sadly, it’s as we grow older that our curiosity and awe often wanes, to be replaced by suspicion.

My husband and I have two kids, aged 10 and 11.5, both still enthralled by nature. For two main reasons, I think. Our lifestyle tends to expose them to nature and the outdoors, especially on weekends and during holidays. And we actively encourage physical contact with all things natural. With dirt and mud and sand. With bark and leaves and pebbles. And with small creatures. Thankfully, we have mostly lived and travelled in places where immersing ourselves in nature (sometimes literally, in pools and rivers and the sea), has not been constrained by fences, rules and regulations, and neighbourly disapproval.

There is a world of difference between merely seeing an animal from a safe distance (safe for the animal or safe for the child) and experiencing the privilege of truly getting to know it through touch.

Have you ever watched a child hold a lizard for the first time, seen the expression of surprise at the mercurial quickness of smooth, dry scales slipping through fingers? Or the tenderness with which a little girl cages a butterfly in the basket of her hands? Or the boy cupping a plump toad in his palm, unconsciously bringing it close to his chest, his protective instincts awakened?

If they are not permitted to interact with fellow creatures, to be hands-on, because either we parents or the rules are over-cautious, then we lose crucial opportunities for children to connect with animals, to develop empathy for wildlife, to know, understand and respect nature.

Namaqua chameleon

Of course, children need to learn that there are risks involved. Snakes should definitely be kept at a distance, for example. And I do realise that handling animals can occasionally lead to stress, or accidents in which the animal becomes injured or dies, or the child is bitten or stung. But such incidents can largely be avoided if kids are guided properly; most soon get the knack of holding a small creature and become amazingly adept at catching them without hurting either themselves or the animals.

Ameiva lizard

And if a lizard loses its tail, or a flower its petals, or a beetle or tadpole succumbs to being over-manipulated by small, eager hands, is that too great a price to pay? Or should we be prepared to make such small sacrifices if this means our children will grow into adults who retain their sense of wonder and delight at all things natural, and who love and protect nature?

What do you think?

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