In a world full of computer screens and smartphones and iPads, how on earth do we expect the modern child to develop an interest in nature? By religiously watching a plethora of natural history, wildlife and “survival” documentaries? Be warned, some will only teach you that all of Mother Nature’s critters in the wild are out to get you — which they are not. They are out to get out of your way mostly, but that’s another matter.
No, watching even the excellent David Attenborough may not help all that much. What does is getting out there — down and dirty, hot and dusty. Studies have shown that children who spend their time outdoors, rambling, playing or goofing about on treetops, pilfering mangoes and guavas, are more likely to develop an interest in the natural world — and later, go on to take on careers which involve it. My generation was lucky — we had no electronic gadgets or social media to distract us and our parents did not throw hissy fits when we returned home after a whole day out, usually bitten, scratched, pricked, our clothes in tatters; knees and elbows scraped and scabby. They just calmly told us to go take a bath.
Modern parents, alas, are neurotic about “germs” and forbid their kids from venturing out without being lathered in sunscreen. Playing in the mud (in which, incidentally every plant grows naturally) or in muddy puddles is a complete no-no. I’ve read horrifying reports that schools in such “developed” countries as the UK forbid kids from going out in the rain (agreed, rain in the UK is usually like a dripping cold tap), forget about splashing in puddles: they’re corralled indoors at such times. Of course, there are parks in cities — both here and abroad. But city parks are usually manicured and pedicured to the extent they bear no resemblance to actual nature.
Even so called “safari” parks are disciplined. I’ll never forget our sojourn in Singapore’s Night Safari: There was a boardwalk you had to “trek” along; for a while, you actually walked through “ecosystems” that replicated true wild ones: grasslands, swamps, etc. but for very short distances. Just as you began to con yourself into believing that, hey, you could actually be bitten by a mosquito here, you came to a shelter complete with seating arrangements, ceiling fan and information screens telling you everything about the rhinos you saw grazing peacefully.
Kids experiencing this sort of thing will probably end up thinking that nature is just a show — to be admired, perhaps, but not something they could be a part of. And when environmental issues become “subjects” in school, there goes the joy of learning!As a child, I had zero knowledge about insects, birds and most animals (except that tigers liked eating people). But yes, I knew very well which ants would bite and which would not; that it was foolish to throw pebbles at a wasp’s nest; that there was no way you could catch fish with a bent paper clip and ball of atta; or that you could raise baby shrimps in ex-whisky bottles filled with water!
“Hunting” butterflies with a rubber band and paper pellet was a very stupid thing to do — if you hit one, all you got was the tattered remnants of something that had been very beautiful. Better to practice your aim by firing your air-gun or catapult at plasticine figurines of your imagined enemies!And without formal “knowledge” you learned — believe it or not, there was no Google those days — that the big black ants that came out during the monsoons, were very particular about who they let into their anthills. For hours, I watched this hefty bouncer of an ant, armed with massive mandibles, carefully give the once-over to every ant returning home after a foraging trip. If it didn’t have the requisite “visa”, it was taken out, straightaway. It could have been, God forbid, an “illegal alien!” On another occasion, I watched these same ants bring down a hefty carpenter bee, by relentlessly chasing it down in just the same way wild dogs bring down wildebeest on the plains of Africa. Not to mention glamorously-striped garden spiders swaddle their victims in silk and store them away for another time, and then wait patiently for the next foolish fly…All this, and much more fuelled my curiosity.
There’s no better feeling than to find out things for yourself and the pleasure you get when you triumphantly tell yourself, “Ah, now I know!” What alarms me is the number of youngsters growing up without an interest or curiosity in anything particular.
Anyone who has excelled in his or her field has done so because something about their subject has kindled their curiosity. Mother Nature is full of the zany, bewildering, and beautiful. To adapt from Carl Sagan, “Out there are a billion, zillion mysteries waiting to be unravelled!” So get down and dirty and begin figuring them out.