Children and Nature: Remembering Trayvon Martin


February 26th was the 1 year anniversary of the murder of Trayvon Martin in Florida. Trayvon Martin was a 17 year old unarmed Black teenager who went walking outside in his neighborhood in Florida with a bag of skittles and was murdered.  As an Ecotherapist who works with people of color to connect their healing to connecting with nature, I began to think of how feeling safe outside can be a barrier to engaging with the natural world.  I didn’t spend a lot of time outside as a child because our apartment complex was not always a safe place to hang out; there were often fights or older men and boys harassing young girls.  It was not until I was a young adult graduate of college away from home that I experienced hiking for the first time in the hills of West Virginia.  I remember the journey to West Virginia from Washington, D.C., the stares we encountered when we stopped to eat or get gas, the jokes we made about the “rednecks” coming to get us to distract from our fear.  But, we were determined to get “our nature on”, we were going to occupy the forest and began talking about Harriet Tubman and our ancestors who knew these woods like the back of their hands.  Our discussion of our ancestors comforted us and gave us strength to face our fears. But we had to consciously invoke these memories just to get the courage to go for a hike.

Trayvon Martin wasn’t entering a big scary forest, he was walking alone, he thought he was safe in his neighborhood surrounded by familiar trees, plants.

In the last 5 years there has been increased visibility, discussion, and research on the benefits of children playing in nature.  Research states that children ages 8 to 18 spend an average of 7.5 hours a day — more than 50 hours per week, connected to a TV, computer, video games and other electronic media.  A child is six times more likely to play a video game than ride a bike.  Sources: Kaiser Family Foundation, The Outdoor Foundation, Texas Education Agency, Texas Children in Nature

Richard Louv the author of the international best-selling book Last Child in the Woods: Saving Our Children From Nature-Deficit Disorder, raised people’s awareness of the outcome resulting from “kids spending more time indoors and in front of electronic screens and less time climbing trees, making forts and enjoying unstructured free time in nature. “  An organization he founded, called The Children and Nature Network has compiled research on the benefits of nature such as:

  • Nearby Nature Reduces Stress in Children. Wells, N.M., and Evans, G.W. “Nearby Nature: A Buffer of Life Stress Among Rural Children.” Environment and Behavior. Vol. 35:3, 311-330.
  • Being Outdoors is Important to Health.  Godbey, G. (2009). Outdoor Recreation, Health, and Wellness: Understanding and Enhancing the Relationship. Washington DC: Resources for the Future
  • An Outdoor Program Enhances Children’s Well being, physical activity, and feelings of health, safety and satisfaction. Wood, C., Hine, R., & Barton, J. (2011). The health benefits of the Youth Outdoor Experience (YOE) project: University of Essex.

 But what about children who live in neighborhoods where they are unable to be outside for fear of violence? What about Trayvon or the countless of other Black children in Chicago, Oakland, and Washington, D.C.  who risk their lives just to go outside? 

 Trayvon was deemed suspicious and considered a “danger in the environment”, similar to the sighting of a lion or bear or other wild animal in the wilderness.  There is a long history of African Americans being identified and compared to “wild animals”.  These perceptions clearly live today as African Americans are more likely to be racially profiled by law enforcement and even their own neighbors.  I’ve also heard of park rangers in National Parks using the phrase “there was a sighting” to refer to Black people visiting the parks.  
There is clearly something much deeper going on in our environment when it comes to African Americans and other people of color having safe access and opportunities to engage with nature or simply go outside to play.  Promoting engagement with nature for health and well-being must also include analysis and action around violence and targeting of African American teenagers and children.  I agree with research that states that spending time in nature is beneficial in the development of children as well as adults.  I support giving children and adults access to unstructured time to play, to connect with the sacredness of nature.  However, I also know that this seemingly simplistic idea does not ring true for all of us. For some children, going outside can mean a death sentence. 

And so as I walk the beautiful hills of Oakland today, I’m remembering Trayvon Martin and praying for justice for him and his family.  May the blessings of the ancestors rain down on him, may his parents and family be comforted, may justice be served and may we create a world where all of our children can feel and be safe to go outside.

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