Alone in the winter woods, the girl watched and listened to a world unfamiliar to her. Wearing a pair of snowshoes, in the cold and quiet landscape, she stood with her back against a big oak and noticed all kinds of animal tracks coursing over the snow.

Earlier, I had led the girl and other sixth-grade students on snowshoes through the woods. I'd dropped each of them off at spots where they were to remain alone for 15 minutes. Dips and bends in the trail ensured that they could not see each other from their posts. I'd told them to simply be still and silent and to watch and listen. To many kids, a quarter of an hour of quiet with no cell phone, computer, television, or other interruptions may seem like an eternity.

On this day we were focusing on increasing our skills of observation. Before heading outdoors, we had done some indoor exercises that law enforcement agents use to become more observant. Then I'd challenged them to find their inner Sherlock Holmes. I explained that anyone who is serious about doing detective work or studying science of any kind has to hone observation skills.

My goal was to get the kids jazzed to go outdoors and look for questions that might ultimately lead to answers about the flora and fauna in the natural world. Even though we saw no animals, what clues told of their presence? And what could we learn about the gait and speed of the critter by looking at its tracks in the snow?

When the kids were left alone in the woods, it may have seemed near torture for some of them. But upon gathering together again, the group fairly exploded with excitement in wanting to share their solitary experience. The girl who had stood by the oak tree was wide-eyed with wonder. "It was so quiet at first," she said, "but then I heard a bird that sounded like a computer!" She paused and cautiously admitted, "At first I was kind of scared, but then after hearing the funny-sounding bird, it got real quiet for quite a while. It was so pretty and … I felt like I could see within myself."

Real Outdoor Education.

I can wax nostalgic about all the forts and treehouses of my childhood. Or about the deep craters we dug trying to get to China. I often reflect on the benefits I received as a young teen while I simply sat when hunting squirrels and ducks on my grandparents' farm. The alone time forced me to pay attention to the world around me and helped me appreciate the virtues of patience and humility. Time spent out in the elements sculpted my future as a naturalist and an educator.

Now the average American spends hours every day in front of a television, computer, or handheld device. The impact on physical health, social development, and time outdoors is serious. Clearly, we need to create opportunities for experiencing the natural world.

Are we forgetting to let kids be kids? Ken Finch, president of the Green Hearts Institute for Nature in Childhood, was an environmental educator for many years. He has shifted his efforts from structured environmental lessons and now is a proponent of "nature play" for children. Finch believes that structured environmental lessons offered in school classrooms or at nature centers, such as learning about wetlands ecology or bird migration, are important. But the real spark for generating a love for the outdoors comes early in childhood from spontaneous play and discovery in the outdoors.

"Unstructured childhood play in natural settings—what many of us happily remember as mucking around in the woods—is so much more than just play," says Finch. "A growing body of research reveals that this sort of free play in diverse, stimulating outdoor environments supports the entire spectrum of children's developmental domains: physical, social, emotional, intellectual, creative, and spiritual."

Writers Ralph Waldo Emerson, Walt Whitman, and Annie Dillard would agree with Finch. They would have smiled and nodded at the wide-eyed girl's woodland discovery. In the mid-1800s, Emerson wrote, "We are shut up in schools and college recitation rooms for 10 or 15 years, and come out at least with a bellyful of words and do not know a thing. We cannot use our hands, or our legs, or our eyes, or our arms. We do not know an edible root in the woods. We cannot tell our course by the stars, nor the hour of the day by the sun."

Those intimate moments where we interface with wildness are assigned a nearly indelible site in our brain's memory bank. Laurence Gonzales, author of the book Deep Survival, has worked with neurologists in trying to understand how the human brain copes during wilderness survival. He is also interested in how we form positive and negative memories. He calls these "emotional bookmarks"—the memories we carry for a lifetime. They can be reawakened by smells, sounds, and feelings. Positive outdoor experiences augment a human's natural affinity for nature.

Free Time.

In my 30 years of working with young people, I've seen them fall in love with nature when they have an intimate, unscripted experience with it.

On a morning in early May, I was with a dozen sixth-grade students on a small, quiet lake surrounded by a host of muted shades of green. No cabins, houses, roads, or other human features. With headphones over my ears, I carried a radio-telemetry receiver to try to get a reading on a Blanding's turtle, which had a transmitter on its shell. Our goal was to map the turtle's spring movements. In doing so, these students were participating in honest-to-goodness wildlife research.

We spent the morning walking the shoreline trying to locate the adult turtle. No luck. I explained to the students that science and research can be testy and frustrating. And sometimes the subject you are studying remains elusive.

At lunchtime we settled down near the lake's edge to eat our bag lunches. Since a teacher and other adults were supervising, I decided to recharge by eating a short distance from the lively group. I found a quiet place where I noticed a lone redheaded boy in a bright yellow rain slicker sitting on a downed tree. Respecting his privacy, I asked if he would mind if I sat on the other end of the log. He replied, "No problem."

We ate quietly, looking out over the motionless lake. A pair of Canada geese and their mirror images swam slowly into view. Other than the banter coming from the classmates, the setting was serene. Because of a soft mist, I did not dally in eating.

Under his breath, the boy said, "It sure is a beautiful day."

I was startled at his pronouncement. Most folks would not find it "beautiful" eating lunch in a drizzle, but I mumbled in agreement.

He paused, then added, "The Earth is so precious."

I stopped eating, humbled by his statement. All I could do was choke out a stumbling, "It sure is."

He let a few seconds pass before he delivered the coup de grâce: "If we could only learn to share."

At this point I could not utter a single response. What could I have possibly added?

We finished our lunch, watching the geese and listening.

I often reflect about that spring lakeside lunch and how it moved me. I learned that given the right surroundings, in the intimacy of shared words between a small group of people—in this case only two—we can free inhibitions and feed our hearts with love for wild places and wild things.

That was more than 25 years ago, and I wonder where this 30-something person is now. I wonder if he uses that day's memory as fuel to speak out for the likes of geese, woods, and lakes.

That encounter was a defining moment in my career as an interpretive naturalist. The boy was responding to a blend of circumstances. He was at the edge of a lake surrounded by fresh, soft colors, watching wildlife, feeling safe to openly speak his profound private thoughts. We adults need only to orchestrate similar outdoor moments with young people. The challenge is to not lay out and control the experience in such a way that it steals their moment of discovery.