May 01, 2019Iremember the first time I found a morel mushroom. I was nine-years-old, it was late May and I was staying with my grandparents for the weekend. I remember telling my grandfather that I was bored. That's when he said, "Come with me." We were going out to "the back 40 to find morels."
I remember him saying that there is no way a kid should be bored when they have "all that the woods has to offer."
We hadn't gone far when he pointed towards a southwest facing hill and told me to look over there. He told me "that's where they like to grow first" due to the longer direct sunlight on those hills. After about an hour and a couple different locations, we came across my first morel mushroom. Well, actually, my grandpa came across it and then called me over so I could find it. It took me a minute and some guidance but then, there it was; the mystical morel mushroom. Only about three inches tall and barely peeking out from under a pile of fallen elm, maple, and ash leaves. I was ecstatic and gave out a little squeal of joy.
He handed me his Case pocket knife, the blade already stained with patina, and told me to "harvest" the mushroom. I was hooked from that day on. Every spring my grandfather and I would walk out to the back 40 and hunt for morels. It was our tradition.
I still use that same Case pocket knife, even more stained with patina now, to harvest morel mushrooms with my children. This past spring my oldest son, five-years-old, found his first morel mushroom and I was able to vicariously relive that wonderful memory I have with my grandfather.
I am now a mental health counselor that specializes in wilderness therapy and I have four young children, all of whom I take into "the back 40 to find morels" every year. As a wilderness therapist I know how important it is to be in nature together, even if we don't find any mushrooms.
The author's five-year-old son found his first morel mushroom.
Recent studies have shown that children spend four to six hours per day in front of a digital screen and less than 30 minutes per day of outdoor time. Dr. Richard Louv, author of the 2015 book, Last Child in the Woods, coined the term Nature Deficit Disorder (NDD) due to the epidemic of loss of connection to the natural world and our youth. To connect/reconnect to the natural world here are six reasons to take your children morel mushroom hunting.
1) Outdoor time is essential to children's mental health.
Research shows that children need at least two hours per day outdoors for optimal growth and development. Researchers from Aarhus University in Denmark found that time spent in wild spaces is associated with an "up to 55 percent lower risk of mental health disorders in adulthood."
Residential green space in childhood is associated with lower risk of psychiatric disorders from adolescence into adulthood by Kristine Engemann. I guarantee you will need to spend more than two hours in the woods looking for morel mushrooms.
2) Walking in the woods looking for morels can be physically beneficial. Physical activity is necessary for children to build strong bones as well as strong muscles. It has been shown that hiking in the forest can burn 400-700 calories per hour. Walking off trail, as you will need to do, will definitely give you a work out; ducking under and climbing over fallen trees, hiking up and down hills all while searching for the elusive morel mushroom.
What you might not know is that hiking/exercising in the woods can improve you and your child's cognitive ability, lower stress, increase self-esteem and release endorphins.
In a recent article (https://www.google.com/url…) from the New York Times, Dr. Zarr, a pediatrician at Unity Healthcare in Washington DC, commented that, "…population studies [show] that closer proximity to nature is connected to positive effects on a wide range of health issues from obesity, hypertension and diabetes to depression and anxiety, and many more, though much of the research is still preliminary."
3) Spending time together looking for morels builds stronger connections between you and your child. Child development studies explain that the more time spent with your children doing unique, or out of the ordinary things, the stronger the bond between you becomes. This is because our brains are hard wired to remember the out-of-the-ordinary things as an evolutionary adaptation for survival. According to a 2017 study published in the Children, Youth, and Environments Journal, spending time in nature improves "dyadic cohesion," or, relationships between two people.
4) Having family traditions can build stronger family bonds that are beneficial through generations. We all have some family traditions such as the holidays and what we do during those times. Other traditions include family fun night, pizza night, and annual camping trips. Building the tradition of hunting for morel mushrooms is an amazing family tradition even if you do not find any. Recent research (Isolation. Retrieved from https://www.goodtherapy.org/learn-about-th…/issues/isolation and Olien, J. (2013). Loneliness Is Deadly) has shown that closer connections to family and friends is a better indicator of life longevity than diet and exercise.
5) Looking for morels is a form of mindfulness. When walking in the woods looking for morel mushrooms we are ever in the present moment scouring the forest floor for signs of morels. Mindfulness has recently been shown to be extremely beneficial for children and adolescents in regulating their emotions, anxiety, depression, ADD and ADHD. A 2014 Japanese study, Forest medicine research in Japan.[Nihon Eiseigaku Zasshi. 2014], found that being out in the woods will increase your brain's serotonin and dopamine output and lower the cortisol; which will help your child to be happier, healthier, and sleepier. For some children this will be as close to getting them to practice mindfulness as we will get.
6) Time spent in nature will help your child develop an appreciation for nature. Studies show that the more children are exposed to the beauty of nature and all its splendor, that they will develop a deeper connection and sense of stewardship for wild places.
Author Randy White explains, "regular contact with and play in the natural world" is what develops a love of nature and a desire to protect the environment or, in his words, a positive environmental ethic. Another study was conducted at the University of British Columbia that exposed a direct correlation between adults who wish to protect the environment and their experiences with childhood outdoors. Catherine Broom conducted the experiment and found that "when outdoor experiences are positive in young children, their love for and comfort in nature will carry on."
Spending time in the woods looking for morel mushrooms will expose your children to all that our natural spaces have to offer. With the way morel mushroom hunters guard their spots, it's hard to imagine any morel hunter not advocating for a cleaner environment.