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THE EXTINCTION OF EXPERIENCE
Imagine for a minute the magic, secret place that you had as a child. Close your eyes and dream of as much detail as you can. Imagine the texture of your chair, the play of light at different times, the smell of dirt or leather or maybe your dog, and the sounds close by and far away.

For many of us, this experience quickly and vividly floods our minds. But in their book The Geography of Childhood, Stephen Trimble and Gary Paul Nabhan worry that today’s children may never build a similar reservoir of sensory imagery. When life is experienced through books or a screen, the deep richness of texture, smell, background sound, temperature, and taste simply doesn’t occur. More and more often, the authors argue, American imaginations are likely to experience only through a video. Naturalist Robert Michael Pyle terms this “the extinction of experience”.

This week I’ve had the opportunity to observe our children playing in the rain. The heavy air and lack of a breeze didn’t dampen their spirits even a little. They splashed in puddles and delighted as a dam was cleared and water rushed away from the playground. As adults and parents, we are dismayed when our children are wet and muddy. They loved it, and their whole bodies experienced a knowledge that can never be taught from a book or from television. Einstein “knew” through his body as he discussed that his theory of relativity came as he imagined riding a light wave. Our little children need to learn through these sensory experiences so that ultimately they can and will learn and imagine more and better.

In this transition season of increasing heat, go outside with your children. And understand that children do not experience the outdoors the way adults do. Adults are aware of the “big picture” while children are much more focused. At the zoo, for example, you might be interested in Latin names, the interpretive message about an animal’s role in the “chain of life”, and about habitat. Your child may be fascinated by the squirrel stashing acorns away under the sidewalk behind you.

Allow your child the freedom to go just past the reaches of adult scrutiny, to explore nature, to dig and get dirty, to build forts and catch lizards. In the process, she learns skills and gains understanding that we adults sometimes don’t teach very well. Take care to plan some of this unruly element into your own life. Our grand urban designers would turn our world into a sterile mall where life is experienced through a big-screen TV. Back away and give your child the gift of a magic, secret place where sensory imagination soars.

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