Bay Farm, on the Kingston-Duxbury line, is a favorite spot for families.

My son, Abel, who is seven months old, loves to go for walks outdoors. When we step into the woods or fields of a nature preserve, he inevitably begins to babble excitedly. Even though we have no idea what he is telling us, it is clear that he is quite pleased.

This makes me so happy! I too love the outdoors, and I’d be dismayed if my son didn’t share my enthusiasm. I know there’s a really good chance that when he’s thirteen he may prefer video games to hikes, but for now we’re good. We’ll continue to walk as long as the weather permits it.

Chris, my husband, is already talking about bringing Abel to the redwood forests of Northern California when he gets older. We’ll camp for a week or two while Chris photographs the ancient trees. And my parents are planning to bring Abel to the Grand Canyon when he is ten years old. This fall my father and a friend hiked down to the canyon floor – a tremendous physical challenge that only one percent of Grand Canyon visitors even attempt (but that’s a story for another day). Maybe someday we’ll do that too. For now, I’m content to dream of watching the sun rise over the canyon rim with Abel and the rest of my family.

According to the National Park Service, my dream – which used to be quite common – is becoming more and more rare as the years pass. Visits to national parks have been on a downward slide for the past decade, and fewer and fewer people are interested in staying overnight at park lodges and campgrounds. The Park Service is studying the trends and ramping up their efforts to attract visitors, especially young ones. But the competition from theme parks threatens only to worsen.

Richard Louv’s 2005 book “Last Child in the Woods: Saving Our Children from Nature Deficit Disorder” discusses how childhood is becoming an increasingly indoor affair. We are so concerned about the possibility of abductions and other crimes, not to mention insects bearing horrible diseases, that we won’t let our children play outside – at least not to the extent that we did when we were kids.

When I was growing up, my parents permitted my sister and I to roam the neighborhood, including the woods and the cranberry bogs nearby. In fact, my mother wanted us to play outside as much as possible, and encouraged us accordingly. We weren’t supposed to go anywhere alone, but as long as a friend or sibling accompanied us, we had free reign over a large area. I want to offer this same freedom of exploration to my son as he grows up. I’m not sure that’s possible.

Some National Park officials cite our overly cautious and litigious society as the source of the problem. If we didn’t have to post signs warning of flash floods, bears, ice, dangerous spiders, and so forth, perhaps people would be more apt to spend time outdoors. Too many warnings scare us away from some of the most magnificent places on earth, not to mention the more mundane but still beautiful nature areas right in our back yards. Did you opt out of a walk in the woods this summer for fear of catching Lyme disease or encephalitis? Certainly these fears are warranted, but how cautious is too cautious? Is it really better for your health to stay indoors?

It’s winter, and spending time in nature is less of a priority for most people now than it is during the other, warmer seasons. Still, most of us need to go outside every so often to get a breath of fresh air or to avoid cabin fever. Chris and I discovered that even as a tiny baby, Abel benefited from some time outdoors. We try to bring him outside every day. When he gets cranky, the change of scenery seems to improve his mood. It does the same for us.

Before long Abel will be walking – and then running. Our wooded back yard will be a great place to play, even if we have to take extra precautions to avoid ticks and mosquitoes. The South Shore’s myriad nature preserves will make excellent field trip locations. And when Abel gets older, we look forward to visiting some national parks. It’s funny – before Abel was born I couldn’t imagine camping in the redwood forests of northern California – but now it sounds fun!

By Kezia Bacon-Bernstein, correspondent
December 2006

Kezia Bacon-Bernstein’s articles appear courtesy of the North and South Rivers Watershed Association, a local non-profit organization devoted to the preservation, restoration, maintenance and conservation of the North and South Rivers and their watershed. For membership information and a copy of their latest newsletter, contact NSRWA at (781) 659-8168.