Skip to main content

Oregon Family Magazine

Explore Nature Nearby

10/02/2017 ● By Sandy Kauten
Wild animals. Darkness. Creepy-crawlies. Things that go bump, hoot, squeak, or screech in the night. For some folks, rather than a wonder-filled, living, breathing laboratory of life, the great outdoors is a dark closet of dangers, teaming with things out to get us. Okay, maybe that's an exaggeration, but the truth is, some of us (adults especially) find nature frightening.

So, what are we scared of? Spiders, snakes, bats, bees, poisonous plants, things with thorns, night noises, dirt, and the dark. We're also afraid of getting lost, falling off cliffs, drowning, and getting eaten by bears! It’s a scary wild world out there. We've heard about it on TV, seen pictures of it on Facebook, and read about it in the paper. And if we're afraid of these things for ourselves, we're doubly afraid of them for our children.

But here's the thing. If you want to raise confident, capable, and courageous kids, you must model these traits yourself. And if you walk through the natural world in fear, so will your children. So how can you teach your kids (and learn yourself) to be appropriately, but not overly, cautious as you explore and play in nature?  

First and foremost, instead of fear, model respect. In general, it's best to respectfully leave things in nature as they are...both so others can enjoy them and so they retain their place in nature's web of life. HOWEVER, it's also important to know that not everything in nature is dangerous or off limits. So... if you're inclined to consider spiders scary and dirt disgusting, tuck those feelings down deep. It's okay to pick up a fuzzy caterpillar or a slimy slug, if you respectfully put it back where you found it. It's even okay to let a garden spider crawl on your arm! If something has a stinger or sharp teeth, however, be respectful and don't invade its personal space.

Respect can also be expressed for plants. It's fine to collect fallen leaves in places where they blanket the ground, but it's not respectful to pick the last wildflower or a good idea to collect unfamiliar berries or mushrooms. And if you pick up bright red leaves in the fall, you might accidentally collect poison oak! Red is often nature's signal to "stay clear."

Finally, it's also important to respect the non-living parts of nature. It's okay to dig in the dirt for worms, but it's not okay to disturb precariously balanced rocks on a mountainside. It's okay to wade in the shallows by the river, but it's not okay to float through rapids without a lifejacket. If you are respectful of nature's wonders, as well as its warnings, you are very likely to stay safe.

Another important thing to model for your kids if you want them to stay safe in nature is basic common sense. Stick with your pack is a great general rule. If you stay with your group and don't wander off trail, you won't end up lost or somewhere unsafe. Be prepared is another important guideline. Dress for the weather and carry a snack, water, and basic first aid supplies. Stay put is one last rule to remember if you do get lost. If you stay in one place, people are much more likely to find you.

 What about those really specific things you're afraid of? Spiders and snakes and bats, oh my? The truth is, here in our urban area, where your family spends most of its outdoor time, you're not going to encounter many truly dangerous creatures. As for spiders, okay, most can bite, but most won't cause a reaction worse than a mosquito bite. And they certainly aren’t lying in wait to get you. They're much more interested in eating bugs. And snakes, yes, you might occasionally see a rattler on Spencer Butte, but not often. Stay on well-traveled paths and it's unlikely. The snakes that you are more likely to see are harmless garter snakes. And bats? Contrary to popular belief, especially around Halloween, they don't all suck blood! The bats in our area eat bugs...and lots of them. Watch for them swooping through the sky at dusk.

So, have fun exploring nature with your kids this fall. And remember, it's all about sharing nature with children...not scaring children with nature!

For some "scary" (not really!) nature fun around Halloween, come to Nearby Nature’s Haunted Hike in Alton Baker Park on Saturday, October 21st, 5:30-9 pm. At this event, folks will encounter all sorts of night creatures in costume, from a gigantic bat to a sneaky spider! Pre-registration is required – see or this month’s calendar for details. Other fun “scary” or night-themed stuff for little kids this month includes a Sun, Moon, and Stars Tot Discovery Day at the Science Factory on October 6th and a Big, Bad Wolves Little Wonders Storytime at the UO’s Museum of Natural and Cultural History on October 13th!

Beth Stein is the Program Director for Nearby Nature, a non-profit education group dedicated to fostering appreciation of nature nearby and providing tools for ecological living. The group hosts nature walks, school programs, and summer daycamps in local natural areas. For more information, call 541-687-9699 or see the group’s web page at