Silicon Valley is like one endless suburb. Big Head in the aptly named show, “Silicon Valley” said it best when he wondered, “Why is this place so expensive? It’s such a shithole…”
Okay, a shithole is a bit strong of a word – because the weather is amazing and there are thousands of fun family-friendly activities you can do around here within an hour’s drive from your front door. But it is an endless, expensive suburb.
Surprisingly for such a sea of single-story residences, there is a lot of open space reserved for nature. It’s a wonderful spot for hiking, cycling, sailing, climbing, horseback riding, and kitesurfing. But even more surprisingly, natural environments here are not very child-friendly – at least for newcomers it seems that way.
Perhaps it is the lengthly list of horrifying predators your kid can encounter in the open space preserves around here: ticks with lyme disease, poisonous black widow spiders, rattlesnakes, mountain lions, and poison oak are EVERYWHERE.
Growing up in the City of Calgary, my friends and I would ride our bikes to “the ravine”, a natural creek-way that ran through the centre of our subdivision. We would build forts from fallen branches and sticks. We would skip rocks across the creek. We would run with our dogs off-leash, weaving together strands of sweetgrass, and come home covered in mud.
Some summers, my family would vacation at my grandparent’s cabin on a lake in Newfoundland. My brother and I would play in the sawdust piles from chopping wood for the stove, wander through “our trails” in the woods, build forts, dig up potatoes in the garden, swim in the lake, and pick wildflowers. We would be outside from breakfast until after supper. My grandma would heat up water on the woodstove for our baths.
Some day, I’d love for DK to have similar childhood experiences immersed in nature, making his home in the woods. Right now we can’t even afford to buy a primary residence, let alone a summer cabin – but a girl can dream.
Lately I’ve been fascinated by literature about children’s experiences in nature, diving into: “There’s No Such Thing As Bad Weather” by Linda Akeson McGurk, “Childhood and Nature: Design Principles for Educators” by David Sobel, “Hands on Nature” by Jenepher Lingelbach and Lisa Purcell, “Last Child in the Woods”; “The Nature Principle: Human Restoration and the End of Nature-Deficit Disorder” and “Vitamin N: The Essential Guide to a Nature-Rich Life”, all three by Richard Louv. I plan to do reviews of each of these books on this blog – so check back for more details about each book in the coming weeks.
A common theme that runs through each of these works is the importance of unstructured childhood play in nature and how little of it children get these days.
In “Last Child in the Woods”, Richard Louv writes, ““In the United States, children are spending less time playing outside – or in any unstructured way. From 1997 to 2003, there was a decline of 50 percent in the proportion of children nine to twelve who spent time in such outside activities as hiking, walking, fishing, beach play, and gardening.” (p. 34) At the same time, there has been a drastic increase in the number of clinically obese children, with one in six children in the USA fitting that descriptor (CDC 2018).
We are told to limit screen time and do more exercise – but what kind of exercise? Where? One 2014 survey found that 68% of American parents do not think children aged nine and under should be allowed to play unsupervised at playgrounds and 43% want a law preventing children aged 12 and under from playing unsupervised at playgrounds (McGurk 2017).
There is only so much time for organized sports in a day – but going to the park for thirty minutes before supper is do-able. And while organized sports do teach many things – teamwork, hand-eye coordination – I would argue that running around on a man-made soccer field hardly conjures a sense of kinship with our natural world.
So where do I go from here? I believe in the importance of nature-based play for DK’s childhood – but at the same time, a mountain lion killing a deer mere feet from a trail that I frequent with DK is a little close for comfort.
I asked in my local mom’s group – what did people do as children who were born and raised in the Bay Area? And their answers re-assured me – they ran and played without worry.
- Mountain lion attacks on people are rare (there have been fourteen mountain lion attacks on people in California since 1986, only three of which were fatal. Of the fourteen victims of attacks, five were children). Mountain lions are notoriously evasive. It is rare to even see one. Keep your toddlers close, don’t go out at dawn and dusk and you’re unlikely to be affected.
- Rattlesnakes are only really a problem when they are surprised by a silent hiker who steps on them – which children rarely are. The bigger risk is that I drop dead from cardiac arrest if I see one – I am so phobic of snakes. As researchers at the University of Florida put it, “The chances of dying from a venomous snakebite in the United States is nearly zero, because we have available, high-quality medical care in the U.S. Fewer than one in 37,500 people are bitten by venomous snakes in the U.S. each year (7-8,000 bites per year), and only one in 50 million people will die from snakebite (5-6 fatalities per year)…you are nine times more likely to die from being struck by lightning than to die of venomous snakebite.”
- Black widow spiders are fearful of people and while they are reputed to be the most venomous spider in North America – their venom is rarely fatal to humans. Black widow spiders are not hanging around on every leaf waiting for DK to come near them – they are seriously introverted recluses who hang out in dark, dry shelters like rodent holes, hollow stumps and shed eaves, generally areas that I discourage DK from sticking his hands. So, it is unlikely that DK will even come in contact with one if one should be around, and if he does – it is unlikely he will get bit unless he provokes it. Additionally, it’s only the females who have poisonous venom, and even then – a bite these days with access to medical care and anti-venom is unlikely to result in death.
- Tick bites are not ideal – but it is clear when you have a tick bite as their bodies will be visibly burrowing into the skin (k, I know I’m trying to reassure people here, but let’s take a moment to say, THE HORROR!!!!), so while DK getting bit by a tick would suck – it’s treatable and we can send the tick for testing for presence of lyme disease and drug treatment, if necessary. The Mayo Clinic writes, “Only a minority of blacklegged tick bites leads to Lyme disease. The longer the tick remains attached to your skin, the greater your risk of getting the disease. Lyme infection is unlikely if the tick is attached for less than 36 to 48 hours.”
- Poison Oak. What can I say? It’s everywhere. It has clusters of three leaves – but sometimes five, but sometimes seven, but once seventeen. It is green, but sometimes yellow and sometimes red. Sometimes the leaves are shiny. It sometimes has berries. It sometimes has white flowers. It sometimes doesn’t have leaves – but the leafless stems will give you a rash just the same. Basically – it’s always a nightmare for a parent of a wandering toddler. I don’t really know what to say other than I expect someone in my family to get a rash from poison oak at some point. It is not fatal. It is itchy and treatable and I’ll cross that bridge when I get to it. Maybe I’ll buy the child who gets a contact rash a special trophy or medal of honour to lighten the mood and make it feel more like an accomplishment of a well-lived life.
I guess what it all boils down to is I’m not going to prevent my son from experiencing unstructured play in nature. I’m going to *hopefully* teach him to be aware of his surroundings, announce his presence to the surrounding critters, check for ticks, and stay away from plants with three leaves, or five, or seven…oh what the hell, never mind, I’ll start polishing that trophy.