Childhood and nature…………….I grew up in Zimbabwe, Africa and don’t recall having many toys, other than a doll, Penelope, my teddy bear Rupert and a couple of other little things like a play cooking pan and wooden spoon. I spent a great deal of time outdoors, during all sorts of weather, not that it ever snowed there but it rained cats and dogs, was very cold in the winter and very hot and humid in the summer. I often think of my childhood as being perfect and refer to it constantly as a source of inspiration for my work with children.
It is often said that children are our best teachers. Also knowing that large numbers of children today are inflicted with learning and behavior difficulties of various degrees, has prompted me to study children, learning, what works and what does not. I continue to hold that it is our job as teachers, care providers, parents, to meet each child where they are and do all that we can to help each child be at home in their physical body.
I see childhood as a very special, even sacred few years. We know that the first 7 years are seen as the stage of development where children learn through their senses and bodies about their world, selves and others.
Remember when mothers used to say “go outside and play”? Do we do that much any more – I think not enough. What I notice is the ease to put on a video or set our child in front of the computer or other similar electronic device. This is not the “get rid of the TV” talk though – we will probably delve into it a little, more another time I am sure!
What is so great about children playing outdoors any way? I will tell you some of what I know about it through observation and experience.
I remember being so little and absolutely loving the outdoors. We lived on over an acre, as did most of the children where I grew up. Our parents worked so they were out of our way, (which I have also heard it said that one of the best things we can do as parents, is get out of our children’s way!), we knew our boundaries, which started close and grew as did we.
When I was just a little one, younger than 4, I remember living in a house where I know Jack Frost lived in the banana trees at the bottom of the garden. I would watch out the window on a frosty night hoping to get a glimpse of him. I naturally was certain I did see him several times, and would NEVER venture to that part of the garden. Who knows what he was doing during the day! I played with toy cars in the dirt, using leaves and sticks to build houses, buildings and so on. People were pretty little flowers or seed pods that I was drawn to. I always felt a very deep connection to the earth, nature, the sun and moon. I had fairies, ants, flowers, beetles and puddles as my playmates more often than real friends. I went to pre-school, but was not so interested in the other children. I just liked being home with my garden, full of wonders, surprises, and delights. That specific bush I liked to play under – it was a natural play house with earthy scents, leaves that changed colors. I could pick all the ones I liked best and make necklaces or just save them as very important treasures. I still love those particular leaves and I am 49 now!
My most favorite toy and one inspiration for me to come inside and have my bath, (which I would frequently dread, as I would have to say good bye to everything I had been playing with, and I just knew it would be somehow different the next day) was my special “singing stone”. I knew I was the only one in the whole wide world who was special enough that a stone would sing to. None of my friends had even heard one! I had the key to the mystery. My stone, did not look like much to most other mortals, but to me, I knew it was magic. I would put it in the water, my bath had to be just the right height and temperature, and in a few moments it would start to sing to me a sweet, sweet chirpy little song. I loved it so much and was devastated when someone tossed it out, not realizing how special it was to me.
I collected berries and made jam outside in little pots that I made out of seed pods and leaves and was so so excited to share with my mother and father when they came home from work. They never were as excited as I thought they should be.
I played with beetles – I just knew they were part of some deep wisdom that I could not fathom. I knew when it was time for the white ants to start flying up out of the ground, when the dung beetles went on their journeys.
I would make houses out of fallen pine needles – the walls could be built up quite high if I made them thick enough. So, I would design my houses differently each day. What a wonderful thing for children to know that things change – that is just the way it is.
I remember having a dolls bath tub which I loved loved loved! It did not fit Penelope, she was cloth and would not have liked to have a bath either, but this other doll, did. I would take it outside into a nice sunny spot, and bathe my baby, where I left it one day, when there was a snake scare and I ran inside. Several days, weeks or lifetimes later, I went bravely to see it and it had been chewed up by …………I don’t know, someone else thought it was food! How silly! I learned about the power of the elements.
The trees – oh my goodness. They were so wise and knowing and always, always took such good care of me. I could hide in them, watch the world from up high, test myself to see how high I could climb, eat the fruit, watch the ants, taste the leaves, feel the differences in each of their skins. I could not imagine living without trees now.
Then of course, there are all the other stones…………I have collected stones my whole life – each one is so beautiful and individual. As are people. I wonder about the connection with nature being helpful in developing empathy in our children.
When I was old enough to ride my bike several miles (up hill both ways of course!) to school, I gradually earned the freedom to ride my bike to my friends after my homework was done, then gradually expand my boundaries more and more until I would go on long bike rides with my friend – as long as we were home before dark!
So, here are some suggestions of projects or things to do with children today to hopefully inspire their connection with nature.
Have a great big pile of dirt with loads of shovels
Have a nature table in your classroom, home, day care which you change and update seasonally. This in it self, can be a piece of art. The children can collect little things on your walks or from their surroundings.
Tell seasonal stories, finger plays, songs and so on during circle or during your days.
Keep the TV and computer etc etc etc off. These only stunt our imagination.
Have logs to walk on in the yard (or to turn over and find ants and earthworms).
Have bowls of stones, sticks, acorns, walnuts etc etc for the children to play with. They do not need a lot of toys. The less they have, the more their imagination has a chance to play!
Read books and poems about nature
Tell the children about your experiences in nature
Go on long walks
Play outside during all weather so the children learn about their world and start to develop a relationship with their surroundings. They just need to be dressed appropriately.
There are loads of crafts to do with nature found items, which are simple and delightful.
Just shhh and notice how much nature is in your home and how you could have more. Notice the smells and sounds we surround our children with and eliminate as many as possible that are not natural. When we go into nature, be respectful and quiet. Think about how long those trees have been growing and so on.
Leave space……….we do not need to fill our children’s lives. Being bored is a good thing – out of boredom comes creativity!