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Youth in the Woods 

Investing a few hours for a lifetime of interest. 
By: Kathy Andrews 
“How do you know the names of the plants?”

We hadn’t been on the trail more than five minutes when I was hit with a hard question. My mind was a-whirr with the formulation of an answer when she slammed another question at me: “How can I learn to identify plants?”

It was a moment every naturalist dreams of—the seeds of curiosity someone had sown had germinated. In this case the interest erupted with explosive energy.

She didn’t care that I’d been roaming the woodlands with my family since I was old enough to walk, or that I’d taken botany classes in college. She didn’t want to hear that I love to read nature books or that I’m mesmerized by any science television show. It didn’t matter that I, her guide, take every opportunity to join a guided hike as I always learn something from a peer, or that I have a wide-ranging group of people I consider my nature mentors.

Yes, I answered her questions but what this inquisitive sixth-grade mind really wanted to know was what the great outdoors had to offer her.

That questioning mind now needs to be fed and nurtured. Her parents and teachers and mentors need to recognize the interest and enrich her environment, providing nutrients that will allow her curiosity to grow. It’s not really that tough, just making the time for trips to the library or scheduling family time to watch a nature program or take a hike. Perhaps it will entail some trips to the nature center or enrolling her in a junior naturalist program. With each new experience, take a moment to observe the roots of her interest deepen, take hold, and, hopefully, remain steadfast against the winds of the chaotic years between sixth grade and adulthood.

Whoever is responsible for her interest—whatever you said or did or offered—thank you. I sincerely hope you’re sowing more seeds, and that on some future trail hike another of your pupils will throw an equally tough question at me.

My five minutes on the trail with her didn’t initiate this young lady’s interest—but I know the hour we spent together cemented her resolve to explore and understand nature.

Thankfully, this young lady isn’t alone. She has friends who are just a curious about nature. Whether you’re sowing the seeds from home or school or a community group, or are working in a park or nature center or youth program, know that what you are doing is working!

Sometime in our life, someone invested in us, providing an opportunity to experience and understand nature. They opened our eyes and ears and hearts, and we’ve been reaping the rewards for years.

The least we can do is return that favor.