Published on
The Star Tribune (Minneapolis/St. Paul)

Hey -- Let's Stay in Touch

To know what's up with nature (frogs, for instance), we've got to make personal visits.

Judy Helgen

Summer. A time to get outside before nature hunkers down for another winter, a time for kids to roam around and see what's out there. Watch a butterfly or chase a frog; put a bug in a jar and look at it. Summer: when kids' brains store up outdoor sounds and scents and images, all "data" that unconsciously records how their environment is right now, wherever they happen to be.

We know children can be keen observers of their surroundings. It was students on a nature stroll by a wetland near the Minnesota River who discovered weirdly deformed frogs in August 1995. How did they do this? They simply caught them by hand and looked at them and exclaimed surprise to their teacher, who immediately asked questions, such as what should they do about it?

They stood holding those pathetic frogs, one with an extra leg, another missing an eye, and knew something had gone terribly wrong in that pond. And they told everyone what they'd seen. Their discovery, as we know, triggered a major investigation of deformed frogs in Minnesota during the late 1990s.

Now, in August 2008, is anyone looking at Minnesota's newest crop of young frogs? Are kids? Or scientists?

Some of today's children (and adults) are so overscheduled, and so wrapped into a digitized, virtual world, that they have little opportunity to notice the life around them. iPods, cell phones, computer games, you name it, these seem to make ordinary living things -- bugs, worms, frogs -- much less interesting.

Even nature study is becoming computerized: One program lets kids sample a stream for aquatic insects and water quality, all done safely indoors on a computer screen, with no one getting wet or seeing an actual stream.

The more we plug in, the more we shut nature out. With what consequences? In "Last Child in the Woods," author Richard Louv coined the expression "nature deficit disorder" as an effect on today's children, who spend much less unstructured time outdoors than did the earlier generations. Louv's review of research suggests that having time in nature may alleviate problems such as attention disorders.

But beyond that, if kids don't become acquainted with what lives around them, they won't notice if something disappears -- or changes. Frogs, for example.

A new generation of butterfly, frog or bird observers might grow up if kids don't spend all their outdoor time on sterile green ball fields. Nature centers and environmental learning areas make heroic efforts to get students outside, usually in structured classes, but access to these is limited.

In addition, scruffy-looking local habitats -- like tiny tadpole-yielding wetlands and woodsy patches -- keep disappearing. And most children lack the freedom to explore (without an agenda) those "unkempt" areas that remain in their neighborhoods.

Which brings me back to the frogs.

It's mid-summer: the time when new frogs are hopping out of ponds onto the land. I'm curious if anyone's seeing young frogs in areas near wetlands, and if so, what they look like. For starters, do they have four full-length, normal limbs (two in front, and two in back) and two normal eyes? Who's looking? Are you out there?

Judy Helgen, Roseville, is writing a book on deformed frogs.

© 2008 Star Tribune

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