I am a firm believer in Nature being the greatest teacher. There’s more to learn in green spaces than just names of creatures and plants. Children learn empathy and develop a love for the Earth that cannot be fostered through a screen. Countless studies have shown the benefits of regular time outdoors, showing that time in wild places is just as important as good nutrition and sleep. When children are given the opportunity to care for plants and animals, insects and trees they are learning empathy and compassion. Not only towards those creatures, as they will also learn to be compassionate towards other humans through this process. I wrote a blog post about the importance of teaching our children to honor the Earth a year ago and now that Spring is here and I’ve noticed some things in Odin that he has learned, I thought it was time to approach the subject again.
I was just speaking with a friend of mine who teaches at our Waldorf school, The Lighthouse School, about how Odin has recently become fascinated with bugs of all sorts and has been spending his days searching for them under rocks and leaves. He’s started to notice the little bugs that live under mushrooms and the way the bees collect pollen. She told me that this is about the age where children start to understand microcosms. It seemed to happen overnight, but I’m fairly certain that all the time we spend outdoors together admiring every little detail of the world around us has prepared his brain for that switch. We have spent the last three years outdoors with Odin, repeating the words “gentle” and “wonder.” He shows us now that he has been listening to us this entire time, even though sometimes it seemed that was furthest from the truth. We went for a walk in Squam yesterday and right at the beginning of the trail Odin found a trio of snails in some moss. He picked them up excitedly and I was about to remind him once more to be very gentle with them, when I noticed how gentle he was already being. Without my reminding this time. He held them very delicately in his hand and waited for awhile before the emerged again from their shells. I was surprised by this patience but also intrigued.
He was so happy when the first snail came out to say hello. He spoke calmly and gently with it before placing the little guy on his suspender to explore. When the second snail peeked it’s head out, he introduced the two although I’m sure they had already met. We sat in the ferns together for a bit just watching them. I have tried to do this with him in the past and his attention span was always much shorter, which I know is completely normal at his age. It was just magical to see this shift so suddenly and to see him acting out the words I have been teaching him this entire time. Initially he wanted to bring them home, but I explained that this was their habitat and that our home and yard were very different from the swamp. He found a nice patch of Sphagnum Moss and gently set them down, telling them that he would miss them very much but that he would see them again next time we came to Squam. I love seeing this compassion and I’m convinced that it isn’t something a child can learn from a television set.
I heard recently on NPR that the average child spends four to seven minutes outside. Four to seven minutes! That’s the time it takes to walk to the car and back during errands throughout the day. Children’s days are scheduled and structured at younger ages than ever before and there is no time for free play. Parents are more protective. We are lucky to live in a place that is very safe, but I think parents are protective even when they are present. We are afraid of a variety of things that the media feeds to us, afraid of the world. I find myself holding back from stopping Odin at times while he is doing something that could possibly be dangerous. Climbing a slippery tree or playing in swamp water or laying in tall grass (that I know is probably infested with ticks). I try to let him explore on his own and worry less in the moment. We come home from the woods and we always wash our clothes and jump in the shower or do tick checks. When I stop him from exploring, I stop him from developing the process of curiosity. I don’t want him to be afraid of the world, I want him to continue to explore and find creatures and plants that fascinate him to the point of learning more about them. That passion will create a compassion that I’m not sure could be formed any other way. There is more to learning than sight alone. Seeing pictures of a forest or video on a screen is not the same as immersing yourself completely in that environment. There are smells and tastes in the air. Walking into Squam, we can immediately feel the moisture. In the Fall, we pick blackberries and wild grapes and create a sensory filled memory of that place. We experience it fully, completely engulfing ourselves in the habitat we are learning about. We go off the path constantly on our walks, allowing our pores to soak up a place in its entirety. Allowing the world to imprint itself in our memory and creating that love that is so important for our planet’s future.
None of these experiences can be created in a classroom, which is why I say nature is the greatest teacher. Living and experiencing the planet creates a love for it, a curiosity that can only be quenched by more exploration. That curiosity is important for our children’s future. I can only hope there is a transition soon, moving away from development and flashy screens and back to our roots and the roots all around us.