Brittany Gutermuth majored in environmental studies in college and has spent years working as a science and nature educator. “It’s important for people to understand their place in this world, in order to take care of resources and the world around them,” she says. “The younger you start, the easier it is to teach them that their role is integral, and they can cause great harm or help.”
When Gutermuth became a parent last year, she says, “it just intensified my mission.” As the mom of a toddler, “I have a vested interest personally. … It’s always my goal for her to be at ease in nature and to be a steward— that’s the most important thing.”
But when Gutermuth searched for programs or parent groups that focused on those values, she said, she came up short. While the Valley is home to many nature-based kids’ programs, they tend to be for older children. So earlier this year, Gutermuth, a Mass Audubon volunteer, began offering monthly nature walks for the littlest budding naturalists at the organization’s Arcadia Sanctuary in Easthampton.
The “First Child in the Woods” program is geared to families with babies, toddlers and preschoolers (although older siblings are welcomed, too). Once a month, Gutermuth leads families on hour-long walks around the Arcadia grounds. While some of the kids ride on backpacks, Gutermuth sticks to trails that are friendly to strollers and tenderfoot walkers.
Along the way, they stop to observe birds and animals and plants. For the youngest participants, Gutermuth says, a “sensory hike” is always a hit. “They can all smell, and appreciate pointy things and fuzzy things.”
Young children’s innate curiosity about the world make them ideal students of nature. “That’s the absolutely wonderful thing about this age group: they want to learn everything they possibly can,” Gutermuth says. “Whatever you’re excited about, the kids pick up on. I love turning over logs and seeing what little tiny things are underneath. They see that and get really excited, too, and start shrieking when they see the centipedes running around.”
“First Child in the Woods” takes its name from Richard Louv’s popular 2005 book, Last Child in the Woods: Saving Our Children from Nature-Deficit Disorder. In it, Louv described our society’s increasingly distant relationship with nature and warned of the grave consequences that distance posed.
“Our society is teaching young people to avoid direct experience in nature. … Our institutions, urban/suburban design, and cultural attitudes unconsciously associate nature with doom—while disassociating the outdoors from joy and solitude,” Louv wrote. “[A]s the young spend less and less of their lives in natural surroundings, their senses narrow, physiologically and psychologically, and this reduces the richness of human experience.” Research links our children’s increasingly sedentary, housebound and screen-focused lifestyles with problems including obesity, attention disorders and depression; Louv and others also argue that it makes them less likely to grow up with an interest in protecting natural resources.
In her class, Gutermuth tries to impart basic lessons about caring for the natural world, lessons as simple as reminding families not to pick plants as they walk the trails, or to turn a log back over once they’ve investigated the hidden life beneath it, so as not to disturb any creatures’ homes.
And it’s not just the kids who benefit from the class; parents sometimes tell Gutermuth that they want to learn more about nature so they’ll feel more comfortable exploring on their own with their children. “I love that people are coming to my class, but the most important thing is for them to get outside with their kids,” she says. “And it can happen anywhere. There’s wildlife on a city street. A spider web can be a nature learning experience.”
The “First Child in the Woods” program is held at Arcadia Wildlife Sanctuary, 127 Combs Rd. in Easthampton, and costs $5 per adult for Mass Audubon members and $7 per adult for non members; all children get in free. Upcoming walks are scheduled for Oct. 19, Nov. 16 and Dec. 14, all at 10 a.m. For more information, go to www.massaudubon.org/arcadia or call (413) 584-3009 or (800) 710-4550.