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Otto: Kids, parents need to spend more time outside

Lately I’ve noticed a disturbing trend among young people.

Oh, I know. That statement totally makes me sound like an old coot – and not the good kind.

But now that it’s happened again, I feel it’s time I said something.

The other day I was visiting a group of preschoolers and we were learning about reptiles. I’d brought along a few examples – Daisy the box turtle, Cora the cornsnake, Mary the milksnake– and was about to introduce one of them to the class when one of the students complained, “I can’t see!”

Now, this declaration by itself isn’t all that unusual. Typically it means that a class has crowded in too closely and it has become difficult for everyone to see the object at hand. The fix is simple; everyone takes two steps back and, voila, problem solved.

But over the past, say, year or so, I’ve noticed that kids are saying “I can’t see!” in an instant, usually in response to some minor obstruction of their view. A slight movement right or left and the situation would be resolved. But instead they resort to announcing their predicament with a plaintive whine.

“I can’t seeeeeee!”

Here’s what I think the problem is: Kids these days (and man, have I waited a long time to use that term) spend a lot of time looking at screens – touchpad screens, laptop screens, TV screens, even DVD screens in minivans and SUVs. While staring at the glowing images, inches from their faces, the children’s views are completely unobstructed.

Because they are used to 100 percent visibility, 100 percent of the time, kids don’t know how to react when a shoulder or a back of a head gets in the way.

And so they whine.

The good news is, this problem has an easy solution. Kids, and their parents, just need to spend a little bit more time outside.

Believe it or not, those on-screen images of butterflies fluttering, birds singing, even worms squiggling are even better when you witness them live – or, as ABC Sports used to say, Up Close and Personal.

It’s true, the butterflies, birds and worms might not be immediately apparent. But a little bit of searching can yield rich rewards. Powers of observation improve, as does that all-important life skill – patience.

Parents probably will be quick to point out that their offspring are used to instant gratification and quickly will become bored if they can’t find something to look at and be entertained by right away.

To this point, I have two responses. One, kids love – and I mean looooove – to look for hidden objects. We regularly place scavenger hunt items around the building at Hickory Knolls, and I can’t tell you the excitement they generate. And look at the longevity of the Where’s Waldo and Eye Spy series. The concept of “hidden in plain sight” is, and always will be, popular, so why not take advantage of it with a walk outside?

Two, when you are outside, you always can find something to look at and be entertained by. The great thing is, you don’t even have to know what you’re observing to begin learning about it. Start with some basic questions – is it living or dead? Was it ever alive at all? Where did you find it? Why is it there?

Was it around yesterday? Will it be around tomorrow? Was it here when the dinosaurs were alive? Will it be here a million years from now?

Each find will be unique, not the sort of thing that can be replicated on a screen of any kind. Best of all, no one has to stand there saying “I can’t see!” because everyone is in charge of making his or her own discoveries. Later, if they do find themselves in a situation where their view may be obstructed, they’ll have learned that a some patience, perhaps combined with a little movement, makes everything right.

• Pam Otto is the manager of nature programs and interpretive services at the Hickory Knolls Discovery Center, a facility of the St. Charles Park District. She can be reached at 630-513-4346 or She wouldn’t be doing her job if at this point she didn’t remind everyone that the HKDC naturalists will be leading not one but two seasonal discovery walks April 27 at Persimmon Woods in St. Charles. A walk for adults ages 18 and older begins at 1 p.m., and an all-ages walk for families with children begins at 3 p.m. Meet at the park entrance on Keim Trail. Registration is required. For information, call the Hickory Knolls front desk at 630-513-4399.

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