At the beginning of the summer I sat with my family at our favorite restaurant in Boston, at the same table we sat at as little kids. We may be 21 and 16 years old now, but my brother and I played tic-tac-toe and hangman on the paper napkins for old time sake, just as we did years ago waiting for our meals. At the table to our right, two little boys were engaged in iPad gaming wars. The table to our left a little girl sat with her princess dress on, with the addition of a pink pair of headphones as she zoned out to the latest Tinkerbell cartoon on mom’s iPhone. I was troubled to see that with the new rise of technology kids seem to be losing their creativity and sense of curiosity. As I started my adventures for the summer, I was curious to see if the pattern held true with kids across the country, and across the continent.
In May I took off for an environmental volunteer trip to the indigenous village of Piriati Embera, Panama, with UConn Global Brigades. For a week we had the incredible opportunity to learn from community members about their methods of sustainable agriculture, and help plant hundreds of seedlings that will hopefully provide the community with a source of income for future generations. We also helped to maintain greenhouses and irrigation trenches, and held workshops teaching the dangers of acid rain and improper waste disposal. The amazing thing about this trip was not just the experience of working in Panama; it was working side by side WITH the community members. We got to hear stories of their families and traditions, and their hopes for their children and grandchildren. Throughout the week the kids who lived in the area would run by the greenhouses as we worked, making silly faces or showing off their tree climbing skills. They made toys out of sticks and pieces of trash along the street. They leapt into the river trying to show off backflips when they thought we weren’t looking. They raced down the road on bikes and on foot. They giggled and teased and chased and smiled, and they did it without mom’s iPhone or iPad gaming wars. They came to ask questions and tell us about what they wanted to do when they grew up. Some wanted to be doctors, some fashion designers, some singers, some professional futbol players. Every kid we talked to was so excited and curious. After an incredible week of laughing and working with the families of Piriati Embera, Panama, it was time to head back home to the States and I wondered if I would ever find curiosity and creativity in a community like this again…
After a few days back home I headed out again for Mass Audubon Wellfleet Bay Wildlife Sanctuary, where I spent the remainder of my summer. For three months I worked as a naturalist in a camp program with 2nd and 3rd graders in the mornings and running public education programs for families in the afternoons and at night. Camp was all about getting the kids out into the natural habitats and exploring. It was totally hands-on, and totally awesome. Every now and then we would have a camper who refused to walk to the tidal flats, who thought the pond was too stinky to catch turtles, and did not want to get their shoes mucky in the salt marsh. But we quickly saw a pattern. All it took was one turtle to be caught, the net to bring up just a couple of flipping minnows, a camper to spot one giant green crab in the marsh, and they were hooked. The squealing would start, the eyes would light up, and they would smile and giggle so hard that they couldn’t stop. There it was, the excitement and curiosity I had been looking for. The best part of the job was the excitement didn’t stop with the end of the camp day.
My favorite part of the week was the Marine Life Cruise on Thursday nights. On a large boat in Dennis, MA, we would head out into the bay and pull different nets for families to see the awesome things just below the surface of the ocean that we are usually unable to see from shore. It was these nights that I felt like a kid again. Despite being the one leading the trips, we never knew what would get pulled up in the nets and we had the same excitement and anticipation as every person onboard. It was inspiring to see kids turn to their parents and teach an adult what they had just learned. Away from the technology, in such a hands-on environment, everyone was curious and learning regardless of their age. All that it takes is something in nature that people have never seen before and an opportunity to experience it firsthand.
It was these experiences that encouraged my desire to pursue environmental education of marine resources and public speaking. Exploring in nature is so important to keep creativity and curiosity. While I know handing the iPad boys a wriggling squid is not an option, and the timing was not right to tell Tinkerbell about how the great white sharks are making a comeback on the Cape, I hope that they get to experience the joy of seeing something new. I hope they put down their technology and make a toy out of a stick, and run down a dirt road laughing. I hope they feel the excitement of holding a live fish in their hands. I hope that they grow up exploring nature and passing on that love of exploring nature to someone else. From Panama to Cape Cod, it’s curiosity and imagination of the world around them that links kids together, and it’s that very curiosity that we need as a society to conserve what natural resources we have left.