Although a majority of current day civilization has learned to appreciate the benefits of nature and the natural world, it wasn't always the case. From the earliest of times, societies have sought protection from the dangers of the natural world through the telling of tales and legends that were intended to ingrain children with a basic fear of the woods.
From Goldie Locks to Little Red Riding Hood to Sleepy Hollow's Headless Horseman and continuing through such movies as Deliverance, the Blair Witch Project and The Village, mankind has conditioned children to fear the woods throughout the centuries.
Admittedly, the woods can be a mysterious and foreboding place and at times, it is only natural to fear what we hear but can't see, especially at night. However, our greatest fears are the noises that come from creatures unknown. Often, these are the creatures that rest comfortably in our collective imagination.
In our mind's eye, the forest conceals a host of wild animals, witches, demons, and a host of serial killers that lurk in the darkness, awaiting the innocent. This process plays on fears that already exist in most of us, it is also known as the boogieman complex.
Increasingly, American parents have grown afraid of letting their children to play in the yard, bicycle to school or hike in the woods, even though such irrational fears are not supported by the evidence or statistics. For many, the woods are a wild place that is unbound by man-made rules or codes. Sadly, many people live in fear of these wild and untamed elements.
The forest can conceal a variety of threats, both actual and imagined. Although it is a place where a man or child can become lost, never be found again, such incidents are a rarity. An unfounded fear of the forest is known as hylophobia and it affects far more people than most of us would ever expect.
Nyctohylophobia is the much more common fear and foreboding of journeying in the woods at night. It is a sense that you are not alone and it is a fear that can be debilitating for some. It is an affliction that extends far beyond the typical shivers and goose bumps that are expected after an evening of ghost stories around the campfire.
It is understandable that we have a greater fear of the unknown, than of the things that are known to us.
An overzealous imagination can create monsters far beyond any known to exist in the natural world, and as society continues to spiral into the depths of natural detachment; it is easy to understand the growing fear of the woods. We fear most, the things we least understand.
While hylophobia is largely an unfounded fear, there are at least a few psychological afflictions with a rational basis in the Great North Woods. These maladies would have to include Agrizoophobia, a fear of wild animals and Entomophobia, a fear of insects. Anyone spending time in the Adirondacks during black fly season could easily justify becoming an Entomophobiac.
Likewise, many local residents surely suffer from Chionophobia, at some point in their life. Around these parts, Chionophobia, an intense fear of snow is an understated reality, at almost anytime of the year.
Time in the woods better for the classroom
Despite concerns over a growing fear of the woods, a recent study conducted for the Association of Fish & Wildlife Agencies offers ample evidence to alleviate such apprehensions. Researchers funded through a Multistate Conservation Grant of the Sport Fish and Wildlife Restoration Program, uncovered a wide range of benefits that can be attributed to spending time in the open air and learning outside.
The study suggests "a meaningful engagement with nature as a child has a direct correlation with involvement in environmental issues in the future, which should be of great interest as communities look for the next generation of environmental leaders."
Additional research reveals that "people who participate in outdoor activities tend to be happier than those who do not and that active living may lead to a healthier lifestyle, based on the Leisure Trends Index" while "spending time in the open air and learning outside has also proven to increase students' ability to think creatively and improve problem-solving skills."
The study also found that "students who play and learn in outdoor settings perform better on tests, have higher grade point averages (GPAs), cause fewer classroom disruptions". It also found considerable evidence that "outdoor adventure programs can impact positively on young people's attitudes, beliefs and self-perceptions."
In general, the research indicates that among the benefits of outdoor education is an increase in self-concept domains such as independence, confidence, self-efficacy, and self-understanding.
Additional benefits include "enhanced psychological well-being; an increased ability to overcome challenges; a positive impact on leadership competencies; enhanced decision-making skills, general problem solving competencies, academic achievement and academic self-concept. "
Time spent outdoors also resulted in "an increase in personality dimensions such as assertiveness, emotional stability, achievement motivation, internal focus of control, and maturity and reductions in aggression and neurosis.
It was also shown to improve mental strength and interpersonal dimensions such as social competence, co-operation and interpersonal communication skills."
Regarding aspects of health, learning, and lifestyle, the study indicates that outdoor skills programs help to promote lifelong physical, emotional and spiritual well being.
According to the report, "a growing body of studies suggests that contact with nature is as important to children as good nutrition and adequate sleep: time spent outdoors correlates with increased physical activity and fitness in children; exposure to green space reduces crime, increases general well-being and the ability to focus; children as young as five have shown a significant reduction in the symptoms of Attention Deficit Disorder (ADD) when they are engaged in outdoor activities in natural settings."
The positive benefits that the research reveals should offer ample evidence for students, and faculty to address professed fears of the forest.
Joe Hackett is a guide and sportsman residing in Ray Brook. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.