Last week I wrote about what I was doing, how I was approaching these 1-hour experiences, but what I think matters more is what the kids are experiencing. From kindergarten to fifth grade, though a wide age span, they are all still children and, for many, this hour in the “wild” is a novel experience. Regardless of age, they all needed time to explore and play, guided and encouraged by adults who can put aside their own fears for the moment and just be present to observe, stepping in only when really needed. For me, watching and listening to the kids has been an absolute delight, and I constantly learn from them!
Each person connects with nature differently. Some of the kids are drawn to run, yell, climb, and even break and trample. Though I wince when a May Apple gets accidentally smashed, and I worry when I see a decomposing log that may have protected a salamander get moved or broken, I hold firm to my theory that before kids are able to cherish and protect nature, they have to first learn to love it. They need to bond with it and be immersed in it. They need to be the scientists that they naturally are, allowed to just “mess around” and try things out. And in the process, there will no doubt be some damage. My belief, however, is that in the long run, children who get to play and learn in nature will grow up to be adults who recognize that this is the only planet we have and that all of us depend on its health and balance. Unfortunately, I also worry that our “throw away” and single-use consumer culture is teaching children that it’s okay to be careless and destructive because it is too easy to replace things that we break or destroy. When that mentality is applied to the natural world, we see destruction of things that cannot be easily replaced. The book that Valley View is reading together, Nuts to You, asks the question, Will there always be more trees? The squirrels in the story have to find a new realm when the trees that support their families are cut down for the “buzz paths.”
Then there are the kids who, if not required to be in a large class of other learners, would be more likely to engage with nature by sitting quietly in or under a tree, observing, listening, noticing. These are the children who already seem to have a reverence for nature, perhaps because they already experienced prior connections with it, or possibly it is just their own nature to take in the world around them in a calm and quiet manner. My guess is that their parents have modeled and explicitly taught them to be this way.
I loved watching both of these ends of the nature exploration spectrum last week. Seeing kids of all ages drawn to the exact same vines, logs, and trees to climb and challenge themselves made me laugh out loud with joy. Meanwhile, quieter explorers walked or sat with their wilderness journals, drawing and labeling, doing leaf rubbings, and softly sharing their discoveries with me.
Miss T, I love your acorn earrings!
Though I introduced myself as, “Miss Tahlia,” many of the “littles” took to calling me, “Miss T,” which was charming and suited me just fine. I make a point of wearing thematic earrings during Woods and Wetlands adventures, and at least a couple of kids in each class spoke up when they noticed the acorns dangling from my earlobes and commented excitedly, pointing them out to their friends. I like to think that for kids who have only known cultural gender stereotypes, they can look at me and see someone who embraces not only some “feminine” cultural expectations such as wearing jewelry and loving the color purple, but who also gets dirty and climbs trees. (To name just a few!) I hope they can see that we don’t have to let other people’s expectations define, box, and label us. It may be that they don’t have that conscious awareness, but children unconsciously look to us for different ways to Be in the world. I’d like to think I’ve surprised a few!
Back to the Boring Old Real World
My favorite comment last week came from one of the upper elementary students as we left the “wild” and returned to the paved path. I cracked up as I heard him sigh loudly and announce, “and now back to the boring old real world.” But I also thought about it later. They need this more than once in a while. We all do. One of the teachers reflected on what a relief it was to be out in the woods for a little while. Another teacher, breathing deeply and calmly for what was probably the first time all week, looked up and around, a smile on her lips, and reflected that she really needed this and so did her kids. A 4th or 5th grader, upon learning that our time was up, actually appeared to be a bit angry as he scowled at me and said, “That wasn’t an hour.” I assured him that it was, in fact, a bit OVER an hour. But the point was that it wasn’t long enough.
Watching the kids taste leek leaves, chives, violets, and adder’s tongue was also great fun. Only one class got to try the violets and adder’s tongue, but all of the groups tried the ramp leaves. I’ve noticed over the years that, while many kids refuse new or odd foods from their parents, they are fully willing to try wild foods with me as their teacher or as W&W facilitator, even when I caution them that they might not like the taste! Reverse psychology? I don’t know, but I was surprised by how many students last week were up for doing more than just sniffing the oniony plants! Even more surprising was that multiple kids in each class actually liked the leek leaves and proceeded to eat more of them! As you might expect, ingesting wild onions makes for some truly atrocious breath, and it was with great amusement that I thought, this was the answer to getting people to wear masks! Just eat wild onions every morning and all of the people around you will not only stay 6 feet away, but they will put on their own mask just to avoid your breath! This was genius. Too bad I didn’t realize it last year!
Fear, Hate, and Education
One of the days was lightly rainy off and on, so the worms were coming up to the surface and getting noticed. Kids who felt comfortable handling them scooped them up from the paved path as we walked to our exploration site. One of the boys near me stated, “I hate worms!” I was startled by this expression of hatred for a harmless and helpful creature, so I asked him why he hated them. He said, “because they’re slimy.” I wish I’d had time for a more in-depth conversation with him about worms, but I managed to at least briefly explain how being slimy helps worms, and how worms help us and nature. I tried to acknowledge his feelings without shaming him for them, however. I know that lack of education, combined with adults who both model and teach hatred and fear, tied with either no or poor experiences is what leads to fear and hate of everything from worms to humans who are different from us. I want to encourage kids to notice when they feel fear or hate, and to become curious about their own feelings. There is a certain natural aversion to the unfamiliar, sometimes with good reason, but I believe that the more we learn about those who are different from us, the less fear and hatred there will be in the world. I feel strongly that better education is one of the most significant answers to so many of our societal problems.
This is YOUR Home.
I have 4 more days with Valley View students. As I think back to last week, I realize I made a mistake with many of the classes. I told them they are visiting someone else’s home out there, the home of wildlife. I likened it to someone spending time in their own home, and asked how we should treat the homes of others. Of course they chorused, “with respect,” and, “nicely!” My intention was to instill at least a little bit of care, respecting the right of bugs to live where they live. But as I wrote this piece, I saw my error. When we feel ownership, when we care about a place and feel personally connected to it, we take better care of it. Rather than telling kids we are in someone else’s home, I am going to begin introducing the natural spaces as rooms in our own homes that we may never have explored before. Earth IS our home. All of us. Our ancestors evolved right alongside nature. Despite our sedentary, indoor, technology-driven lives, our brains and bodies are still adapted to thrive in nature. I firmly believe that the more connected we feel to the natural world, the better we will care for it, and thus for ourselves and each other.