Where the Wild Things Are

Photos courtesy of Dan Burr &nbsp&nbsp Students at Neptune Nature School observe a heron in its natural habitat.

Where the Wild Things Are


Last year Barbara Bick and I, Dan Burr, opened Neptune Nature School, Alameda’s first, and only, forest-nature school. The all-outdoor, all-weather preschool serves children ages two-and-one-half to five years old. The school nurtures a child’s curiosity of the outdoors and believes children grow best when allowed to be themselves.

I’m a preschool teacher who has been in the field of early childhood education for more than 20 years. When I started, I was 26 years old and a lot more optimistic. I began teaching at Family Service Agency in San Bruno, then grew to become a lead teacher at Marin Day School in San Francisco. Around that time it became standard practice to use a standardized assessment process on children, The Desired Results Developmental Profile (DRDP). 

DRDP consists of around 60 developmental measures of a child’s growth in terms of everything from attention maintenance to gross motor skills, emotional response and writing skills. My job was no longer focused on teaching, but on what I felt was an unnecessary focus on how close to a good standardized student each child was.  

Schools moved from what kids need — what’s fun, what’s developmentally appropriate — into assessing, compartmentalizing, with greater emphasis on academics. It felt as if it were created by someone in a child-development lab at a university outside reality. Academic standards were what it was all about, and they still are. Partially this is due to the competitive nature of getting your child into “The right school.”

In comparison, Norwegian kids don’t start reading until fourth or fifth grade. Then they excel in academics because, by then they’re more self-confident, more collaborative and more creative. They’re allowed to be children during their childhood. What a concept!

When I was a kid growing up in Pacifica, I spent pretty much all my spare time with my friends playing in the hills. The memories I have of that time are some of my most precious. For a number of reasons we’ve closed kids off from the natural world, partly because of an unintended consequence of the 1970’s environmental movement, which advised: leave it alone, don’t tear the leaves off and don’t climb it.

The need to save the wild lands was interpreted as “put it in a glass ball, stick a fence around it and don’t pick the flowers.” Partly because of the bogeyman factor — a fear of what might happen to kids:  don’t get wet, don’t get muddy, don’t go far from home, don’t take risks and don’t talk to strangers. 

The influence of electronic devices has also played a role. There are many benefits to modern technology, but it tends to separate us from the natural world. I can tell a kid who spends a lot of time in front of a screen within 30 seconds of when they come in to our school. 

There’s an aggression there — a disconnect from being present and an inability for kids to be with themselves. They need to be entertained and handed their imaginations. One of the reasons we discourage toys at Neptune Nature School is to encourage imagination. A stick, some water, a tree, some rope and a child’s imagination can turn them into anything.

In the 1980s President Ronald Reagan deregulated kids’ TV.  At the time, Mr. Rogers was top of the charts — wholesome, inclusive programs. After deregulation, kids’ TV tended to be aimed at selling products rather than delivering wholesome content. Mighty Morphin’ Power Rangers took over — pow pow pow. Often on these shows parents were depicted as idiots. Kids were in charge. 

Nowadays, kids are in danger of becoming addicted to their electronic devices — an addict, at whatever age, is the ideal consumer. And they’re conditioned to accept disposability and planned obsolescence. 

All this has certain negative effects on children. These include a  loss of knowledge and love of the natural world: “Nature Deficit Disorder,” Richard Louv calls it. We cannot deny the tens of thousands of years humankind have been immersed in nature. 

That our feet have touched earth and learned to tune our balance. That we have listened to the sounds of our surroundings to tune into danger, food or bad weather. That we could tell which way is north, even without a compass. These things are still within all of us; we just don’t listen to them anymore. 

Kids in classrooms tend to develop ADHD, allergies, behavioral problems, etc. When you give them time to play outside all these problems tend to go away. Most of us parents or teachers probably know this: Politicians and administrators insist on academics, frequent testing and desk work.

At Neptune Nature School, kids are outside, rain or shine, year round. They climb trees, light fires to stay warm, learn to identify bird songs, carve with knives, carry what they need on their backs, wash hands when they can, get filthy, wet and cold, sometimes get a sunburn and — contrary to what we might expect — they are rarely sick. 

The most I’ve had to use out of my wilderness first-aid kit is the occasional Band-Aid. Children I had in classrooms two years ago show no signs or greatly diminished signs of the “behavior issues” we saw before. If a red flag pops up, then we take a closer look into what we can do to help them. We let kids be kids and learn at their own pace, talk to strangers and pet dogs. Their social skills are far beyond those of their peers.

Parents, please take your kids out into the natural world as often as possible, whether it’s a park or a beach, whatever. Let them develop a deep, meaningful, ongoing relationship with nature. Let them play. Let them get dirty. Let them take risks. Don’t be afraid for them. Limit their use of cell phones.

The emphasis on science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) means that we’ve removed the magic and the beauty of nature from the lives of children. Particularly in our heavily science-minded location, the need for magic; fairies and goblins, stories of faraway places, treasure maps and fantasy are all needed to spark imagination, to think outside the box we can get stuck in, if we don’t go outside and play.

As parents, teachers, uncles, aunts, big brothers, big sisters, let’s bring it back!


Neptune Nature School students enjoy the view at Crown Beach.

Emmanuel Williams is an Alameda resident and poet.