Look, but don’t touch?

In recent decades everyone seems to be very conscious of protecting Mother Earth. I suppose we want to ensure its survival and safety for future generations … or are we more aware of how intricately linked we are with nature and we are concerned about our own survival? Either way, there seems to be an overwhelming number of organizations aimed at improving the way human beings treat Mother Earth. This includes implementing “look, but don’t touch” philosophies specifically aimed at children. A few years ago I heard a rumor, courtesy of the local newspaper, that my ocean-side home town was no longer allowing teachers to take their students to the beach for field trips. I’m assuming this policy was put in place to protect the beach. If so, it implies that if children touch they will destroy, maim, or impede the further growth of the environment. Perhaps I am mistaken, but I don’t have 19 green Hulks in my classroom. Do you?  If we teach them “look, but don’t touch” does it mean that we teach them they are incapable of being gentle? I don’t agree that this kind of thinking or policy making will fulfill the ultimate goal it has in mind.

I passionately believe that children must be provided the opportunities to fully experience nature and to completely fall in love with it. Then, and only then, will they be capable of protecting it. I teach my class that they can look and touch. The importance is that they respect what they are touching because it is another living thing, that they are gentle, and that they return what they touch to the location they found it. This tends to be more difficult during forest play as sticks are moved into various locations for many reasons. But, I subscribe to this rule emphatically when I am at the beach with my class: rocks are to be picked up, not rolled over, and must be returned to their location with great care.

During forest play, particularly when children are building forts, I constantly find myself fighting for internal balance. It is so vital that children bond with nature and that they experience it fully and completely. Yet, at the same time I want them to learn to respect what they are being provided (fern branches, sticks, leaves, and moss). After one month in the forest with my new class I am at a place where I am still observing my students and the choices they make during fort building. Some children choose to use items that have fallen to the ground (large Oak leaves, fallen sticks and branches) whereas others choose to forage for living items (fern branches and moss). Currently, my thinking is that my observations empower me to have informed, caring conversations with each child around their foraging methods. When the children have started to build their unique relationships with and awareness of the forest they will be open to these conversations. It is only when they are open to the conversation that a positive affect can be made.

I have fond memories of building forts in the forest as a child. I never had an adult hovering over me saying, “don’t rip that,” “put that back,” “be gentle,” or “stop that.” I grew up caring deeply about nature and having great respect for it. I want to provide my students with these same opportunities. I want to respect my students and their decisions. I do not want my students thinking that I believe they cannot touch without maiming. I do not want my students thinking I believe they are destructive green hulks.



  • Richard Louv has commented on this topic in his book. He goes further to suggest that sometimes kids need to take something apart to understand it – and to realize that taking it apart was maybe not the best idea in the end! I believe it is an educator’s role to guide childrens’ experiences, allowing a certain amount of explorative “taking apart” together with times for discussion about stewardship of the forest. We are creatures in this environment, too. To think that we will have no impact is unrealistic. (I think about this everytime an instructor tells a child they are not allowed to eat any berries because they must be left for the creatures of the forest.) Richard Louv maintains that these “taking apart” experiences help kids build a personal relationship with the forest – and plant the seeds for stewardship later in life.


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