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6-year-old is a natural

The rare sight dog-day cicademerging was spotted by 6-year-old with an eye for outdoors. | Dale Bowman~For Sun-Times

The rare sight of a dog-day cicada emerging was spotted by a 6-year-old with an eye for the outdoors. | Dale Bowman~For the Sun-Times

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Updated: November 3, 2011 11:28AM

He picked the dried brown shell of a cicada off the ground by our maple last week, then ran off to put it into his ‘‘box of skins.’’

That terminology from our 6-year-old caught my ears.

So I asked. And he showed me his ‘‘box of skins,’’ a small plastic tub with the dried, shed skin of a garter snake and a half-dozen cicada shells.

I remember when he announced finding the snake skin early in the summer. The cicada shells have piled up for a couple of weeks. For some reason, he decided to collect them.

It made me proud.

As an outdoor writer, I feel compelled to make sure my kids take at least a token interest in the ways of nature.

Like everybody else in my position or a similar one, I’ve had to deal with the meaning of Richard Louv’s Last Child in the Woods: Saving Our Children From Nature Deficit Disorder.

And I have. But somebody explain to me why our final kid is the one with a true, driven interest in the outdoors.

Why he gets up early enough to sit and watch the bird feeder, then announce the arrival of blue jays and cardinals, making distinctions between male and female cardinals. Why he spots the goldfinches on the sunflowers first? Why he notices downy woodpeckers making their nervous ways around trees?

I don’t think my wife and I did anything that different in trying to impart an appreciation of the outdoors.

In fact, just by the nature of family life, I think the oldest one had greater opportunities than the three kids that followed.

With only one kid, there was more time and money early on to experience bison surrounding our car at Custer State Park in South Dakota or bighorn sheep in the Black Hills or to take a canoe trip through the Boundary Waters, floating past moose munching vegetation while belly-deep in water.

He has grown into a young man, competent and knowledgeable in the outdoors, but an appreciation of nature is not a compelling interest for him. Our second boy, the young teenager, is much the same.

Our daughter, our third child, is the first who had a driving interest in the outdoors, particularly fishing. But it’s only one of many layers of what I consider a healthy, varied life for her.

I have really tried to figure this out, explain it to myself.

One explanation I came up with relates to fear, an idea that Louv does an excellent job of examining in Last Child in the Woods. Fear is a great inhibitor to teaching appreciation of the outdoors: fear of strangers, fear of getting dirty, fear of getting sick, fear of getting hurt, fear of animals. I could go on.

To truly experience the outdoors, there is risk. Be it from the flow of water in a river, mosquitoes, ticks or getting lost.

I sometimes think with the oldest two, we were more cautious, and it held them back in learning to appreciate the outdoors.

By the time our daughter came along, we were more ready for the kids to climb high in trees, root in the dirt, get filthy with mud along the banks of the Kankakee River or wade into a freezing Lake Michigan in early spring.

There are risks in all of those. But there are payoffs, too.

Earlier this month, the 6-year-old spotted a cicada emerging from its shell. For a lot of young ones, that would be quite scary. But for him, it was a moment to be captured. He ran to find me. It was a first for me, too, to watch the bug-eyed cicada break free. Later, he spontaneously made a crayon drawing of the emergence — like something being born.

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