Nature beckons

by Jan Spann

Imagine a world without nature. For most Arkansans, that’s impossible because the Natural State affords close proximity to wide open spaces filled with birds and critters. That’s not the case in many other states, and the vanishing wilderness may even be challenged here in the 501.

How about your family? Can you or your kids identify more corporate logos like the Golden Arches or the Nike swoosh than the birds and flowers in your backyard?  Working as the state coordinators for the Leopold Education Project (LEP), Marc and Suzanne Hirrel want to make sure that no child is left inside. Through training workshops and outdoor activities, these two educators use curricula on nature and conservation based on the writings of Aldo Leopold (1887-1948), as well as the findings of a more recent researcher.

Suzanne Hirrel, LEP state coordinator, conducts a Leopold Education Project GPS activity with students from the University of Central Arkansas studying conservation education.

Aldo Leopold, considered the father of wildlife ecology, believed that people should learn how to discover beauty in commonplace events and places. His book, “A Sand County Almanac,” published in 1948, reflects a philosophy that has guided many to discovering what it means to live in harmony with the land and with one another.

What would he think of our world today with TV, Internet and portable media devices in our cars and on our body?

One writer born in the year after Leopold died has picked up the cause. In his book, “Last Child in the Woods: Saving Our Children from Nature-Deficit Disorder,” Richard Louv describes the human costs of alienation from nature as many American children grow up “being taught to avoid direct experience in nature.” We watch nature shows on television rather than walk the woods and prairies, avoiding the bug bites or dusty messes that give us an intimate connection to our world.

Louv and fellow researchers coined the term, “nature-deficit disorder,” in part because new research indicates that being in a natural green environment boosts a child’s attention span and actually alleviates symptoms of attention deficit disorder. His work has drawn praise from the Sierra Club to the Wall Street Journal to Parents Magazine.

It may sound crazy to us in the Natural State, yet the Hirrels have trained more than 300 educators, using the works of these two men to teach unstructured play with Mother Nature. Teaching us about outdoor play? Just take a moment and reflect on the last time you and your kids had a free-play day. Not soccer, not a golf game, no 5K race. How long has it been since you caught fireflies in a Mason jar, went bird watching or lay on a quilt and looked for shooting stars?  

That’s the unstructured structure that Marc and Suzanne advocate and educate. For more information, visit or catch Louv’s newest book, “The Nature Principle,” which will be released in hardcover Tuesday, May 10.

In the 501, we are blessed to have native treasures like Garvan Woodland Gardens in Hot Springs, Petit Jean Mountain, South Fork Nature Center near Clinton and the Jewel Moore Nature Reserve at the University of Central Arkansas.

So turn off the electronics and get rockin’ in the 501!