St. Louis Park native Lee Ann Landstrom is a naturalist and a children’s book author who’d like to spread the word that being outside is good for children. Recently retired from a 30-year career with Three Rivers Park District, she’s spent a lot of time outdoors herself. “I loved wildlife biology, even as a child,” she says. She recalls many hours happily spent catching frogs and building forts at her family’s cabin near Monticello. Playing outside was also the norm during visits to her grandparents’ farm in North Dakota.
“Parents today are fearful of so many things: Lyme disease, wood ticks, injury,” Landstrom says. As director of Elm Creek Park Reserve for much of her career, she had city-dwelling children on field trips to the Eastman Nature Center there ask if there were lions, bears and poisonous snakes in the woods. Fears are easily transmitted, she says, from adults to children. It would be great, for example, if parents wouldn’t flinch at the snakes in cages. And it would be even better, she says, if parents would encourage both boys and girls with interests in nature and science to cultivate those interests. “My mother signed me up for a geology class when I was in elementary school. I loved it!” Landstrom is grateful that now there is less association of geekiness, particularly for girls, with curiosity about science. She applauds TV shows such as PBS’ SciGirls, a series that shows smart tween girls using science and engineering in their everyday lives.
It’s not only girls she advocates for, however. Landstrom is the proud co-author of Nature’s Yucky: Gross Stuff That Helps Nature Work, a book she wrote, she says, with the reluctant boy reader in mind. (According to the American Library Association, in 2013 the majority of reluctant readers continued to be boys.) “I envisioned the book for first-grade boys, boys still wanting to be read to.” Cited by the Izaak Walton League of America as the best children’s nature book of 2003, the first Nature’s Yucky was followed by volumes two and three in 2007 and 2013. They are all read-aloud works, filled with rhyme and alliteration and repetition. They’re also filled with yucky stuff: facts about nature (pollen is bee barf, for example, and rabbits eat their own poop) that nonetheless highlight nature’s economy and animals’ strategies for survival. “I always tell the girls it’s all right for them to like yucky things, too,” says Landstrom.
When asked about the outdoor preschool movement, Landstrom responds with a reference to one of the books that inspired the trend, Richard Louv’s Last Child in the Woods. “It’s a great book and a great idea,” she says. “Kids are inherently interested in being outside. It’s in our nature,” she says. As for “nature deficit disorder,” a phrase coined by Louv suggesting that people are spending less time outdoors, resulting in a wide range of behavioral problems, Landstrom says kids who play outside have better focus, fewer discipline problems and better physical and mental health.
So what can we do, in this digital era, to get children to abandon video games and social media for the great outdoors? Landstrom has a few suggestions. One is the Minnesota Children and Nature Connection (MN-CNC) a division of Minnesota Recreation and Park Association. Three Rivers Park District, says Landstrom, is another excellent source of outdoor activities for children. “Drop in to your nearest nature center,” Landstrom says. “Eastman is open 363 days a year.”