The Geography of Childhood

Gary Paul Nabhan and Stephen Trimble lament the fact that in the contemporary United States, nature—whether it be true wilderness or the last clump of unmanicured shrubbery at the edge of a suburban tract—is decreasingly accessible to children. Most American children and even a large percentage of children in remote areas, learn more about their environment from the media than they do at first hand or from family members.

The authors contribute alternating chapters in this collection of memoirs, research, and idealogy on the importance of experiences in nature for the healthy development of children and the ultimate care they demonstrate for their environment. They provide many detailed examples of the rich opportunities for playfulness that the natural world offers as opposed to single-purpose manufactured toys or the two-dimensional television or computer screen.

The authors also demonstrate the ways in which cultural transmission depends on learning about the environment directly, with guidance from one’s elders. In one chapter, Nabhan recounts the time he spent with Native Americans in Mexico and shows how their entire folklore depends on a firsthand understanding of the characteristics of local plants and animals. At the same time, Nabhan and Trimble recognize natural settings as the one that, throughout history and across all cultures, connects all that has been and all that ever will remain constant for human beings—the terrain, the elements, and the trail of ants at one’s feet.

They recollect their own experiences in nature and speculate on how these experiences became the foundation of their later choice to become naturalists. They document and ponder their own childrens’ experiences in wild places, and study the lifestyles of children who live in wild places, such as in Trimble’s chapter describing the children who live on a sheep ranch in northwestern Nevada.

Little direct comparison is made to the experiences of urban children, since readers are well equipped to make these comparisons for themselves. The book should inspire a resolve in parents and in teachers to give children more access to wild places. This means allowing children to follow the squirrels that forage for discarded peanuts at the zoo rather than insisting that they study the ocelot in the cage.