Wednesday, April 17, 2013

The Messy Relationship between Children and the Natural World by Mary O'Connell

As I think about children and nature, three past conversations come to mind. The first was about 12 or 13 years ago when my home daycare was in full swing. My husband was lamenting about his inability to grow grass in a yard that was played upon daily by a busy group of children. I remember saying to him, “We’re not growing grass. We are growing children.” He smiled in that way he does when he knows he can talk until he’s blue in the face but it will not change the situation. That grass actually never did come back, by the way.

The second conversation was a year or two later as I brought my little group of children to the Schlitz Audubon Nature Center to our very favorite frog pond. Nets in hand, the older boys would gracefully swoop the nets into the pond at just the right moment to catch a frog that was watching them near the edge. Then the children would very carefully lift the frog from the net, pass it around, and gently let it go right where they had found it a few minutes before.  The children had been coached many times to be very gentle with the frogs. A passing gentleman on the path was dismayed to see them catching frogs. He scolded me, saying that I should teach the children never to touch frogs because the oils from their hands are damaging to them. I guess you can’t really call this one a conversation at all, because I was so taken aback by my apparent ignorant disrespect of frogs and also trying to figure out if he knew what he was talking about, I just stood there in stunned silence.

Finally, the third conversation is one that seems to come around every year these days, returning just as dependably as the geese do every spring. It starts with an email from our landlords saying that they have noticed erosion in the places that the children love to play in the forest and reminding us to keep them on the paths. Last year the conversation continued in person as the nice woman from the land committee took me on a walk to show me some potential projects on the land. Our conversation led us to an area behind Gaenslen School that is a favorite place for the children to play. I shared with her how they love to climb in the dead brambles and struggle up the steeper incline there.

She turned to me in disbelief and said, “You let the children play in that area? That’s not on the path.” I explained that we know the Friends are trying to protect their land from erosion so we have specifically chosen to let the children play in this area that is not their land. She responded, “I don’t care whose land it is. By letting the children play there you are causing erosion. As an educator of children, you should show them the damage they have done and work with them to repair it.” You can probably imagine my silence as I stood there pondering how to explain the Soil Erosion Reparation Plan to the toddlers.

 The fact that these conversations keep coming up seem to indicate that I am a very slow learner.  Am I being cavalier? Setting the wrong example? Being a sloppy educator of children and guardian of the natural world?

I mean no disrespect to the folks who have brought these concerns. I truly appreciate their commitment to a healthier planet and their ideas to protect the environment yet still allow children to observe and learn from a distance. I do realize that the frog would be happier and healthier if it was never picked up by little hands, no matter how gentle.  I completely understand that we must be careful where we trod, because by playing in an area of the forest, the children’s feet trample young seedlings and compact the soil in that area just as they did the grass in our yard, until the area is permanently altered.

Do you know what else is permanently altered during free play in nature? The children. They have developed a love relationship with the natural world. In the end, isn’t that of vital importance to both the children and Mother Nature?

In Richard Louv’s book, Last Child in the Woods, he shares the story of famous naturalist John Muir who, as a boy, would run along the beach with his gun and shoot at sea gulls. (I am not suggesting that we arm the children at LifeWays with guns, by the way.) Louv uses this example to point out how very drastically the interaction between people and nature has changed.  We feel more protective about wildlife than adults did when Muir was a child. The good news is that children today are less likely to kill animals for fun. The bad news, Louv says, is that today’s children are so disconnected from nature they often idealize it or associate it with fear instead of developing a loving relationship with it.  Young children learn to love something through all of their senses, not just by watching and listening, but also by touching, balancing, moving, climbing, feeling, squishing, digging, smelling and tasting. I wonder:  how differently might have Muir’s adult work developed if the grown-ups of his childhood had admonished him daily for leaving the designated walking path?

I am sure these conversations will continue to come my way as long as I work with children. There is certainly a great deal to ponder with regard to the relationship between children and nature. One thing I have come to feel pretty strongly about, though, is this: If we want to raise children who love our Earth enough to protect her from the thugs who seek to exploit her, we need to let the children fall in love with her. I don’t think they can do that from behind glass, on a carefully orchestrated walking tour, or via educational TV shows. We need to let them truly engage with nature using all of their senses, and sometimes that gets a little messy.

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